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Sunday, 19 August 2012

Big Science, Cost and Risk

A couple of days ago the USA announced the catastrophic failure of a test fight for a new super-high-speed aircraft. This news came a few days after the successful landing of a superb American vehicle to explore the surface of Mars, and to analyse the materials that it can collect. The combination of triumph and disaster has a cost of billions of dollars; with more massive expenditure to follow as the errors with the plane are corrected and as the success on Mars is followed-up before the Chinese programme for Mars exploration [which is gaining momentum] scoops up and exploits the gains from the American research. The US Congress has always distrusted the 'military-industrial complex' but it recognises that unless their country leads in both pure and applied science it cannot lead the world in anything; and it recognises that only the state can fund great strategically significant developments. Thus the federal budget must fund projects of vast scope, some of which will fail.

Currently healthcare is a matter for hugely damaging dispute throughout American politics, but in terms of state spending it is relatively unimportant: the debate focusses on whether it is appropriate - and constitutional - to legislate for compulsory purchases of health insurance by small firms and by individuals. The budget cost for the immense scheme of Obamacare is modest. The biggest debate about state funding of big science in the US in recent years was over NASA making cuts in spending that were seen as excessive, especially the retirement of the shuttle craft that had conveyed people and supplies to the space station. In China and Russia there is no publication of defence budgets and western estimates of the extent of the related spending on science are conjectural. India and Pakistan, which possess nuclear weapons, throw up massive obfuscation about both the scope of scientific research and the budget for it.

Most obscure of all is the situation in North Korea, whose progress towards developing the capability to deliver the nuclear weapons that it has almost certainly constructed cannot clearly been assessed; but that 'rogue state' is recognised by all the leading members of the United Nations to be an extreme danger for the whole human race.There is little doubt that the North Korean budget for big science and for a ludicrously large mass army overwhelms expenditure on the maintenance of the civil population. And now Israel and its dependency the United States, are determined to prevent Iran from reaching a situation where it too could become a nuclear threat to anyone. The proportion of the Iranian budget that has been spent on the development of weapons and vehicles to convey them is more in line with the Indian than with the North Korean, and hence progress has been slower and the achievement [thus far] is less dangerous than in North Korea: but it has become a crucial test case in global diplomacy and a major threat to peace and to oil supplies globally.

In Britain, where austerity is still a matter of gossip rather than an acute personal experience for the majority, there is annoyance that India is developing its own space programme while Britain still gives that country hundreds of millions of pounds a year in development aid. Progressively over five decades the UK has chosen not to afford its own aerospace or space programme. The political class apparently still consider it intrinsically good to assist rapidly-expanded populations in dozens of countries to secure health for the children who will become the next breeding stock within two decades; during which the projected rate of economic development [even on the most optimistic interpretation of global and local trends] cannot possibly elevate the existing population to a current American standard of living. Britain taxes its people to hand out international aid; then taxes them more, both through the tax system and in the form of raised electricity prices, to spend on constructing windmills and to close viable power stations in order to meet global standards for the control of carbon emissions that both the USA and the emergent economies ignore. What little capital the economy is investing is in largely applied to low technologies that will be delivered at high cost to captive consumers. Britain is not in the space race, which India and China have joined: and which Britain could have led in the 'fifties and'sixties of the last century. Instead the British state poured wealth into welfare and the dissipation of real wealth. The results are at last now beginning to become understood.

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