The big news in physics yesterday was the announcement that a private donation has been made to support experiments at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider on Long Island. This is the accelerator that’s slamming gold nuclei into each other to create a quark-gluon plasma, along with a million dippy stories about how it might make a black hole that will eat the whole New York metro area. This isn’t my field (not by a long shot), but I think this is terrifically exciting work, not least because the observations that they’ve made confound existing theories– the “plasma” acts more like a liquid than a gas, which was completely unexpected.
The news of the donation has been met with much rejoicing in the high-energy community, with JoAnne Hewett and Peter Steinberg doing the Happy Dance, and even the curmudgeonly Peter Woit saying that “it’s wonderful that the worst immediate effect of the budget cuts for 2006 has been avoided due to the generosity of Simons and others.”
He goes on to qualify that statement by saying “this doesnât materially change the long-term problems,” namely the extremely high cost of high-energy experiments, and the shortage of government funding. While I hate to bring people down at a happy moment, I have to agree with that, and also with Sean’s comment that:
I’m less convinced of the impact on long-term funding. Nobody is going to donate $5 billion dollars to build a linear collider. But the government might get the idea that they should– a worry familiar from high-school bake sales is that every time you collect $x of external funding, your conventional funding is decreased by $2x to compensate. And of course, our beloved comment section will now be overrun by Ayn Rand acolytes who think that all science should be funded by private donations.
I think this is probably the most significant down side of this situation. Unforntuately, this can and will be taken as support for the conservatarian idea that if we would just cut taxes and shrink the government down to its core functions of providing for the national defense and legislating the private sexual behavior of its citizens, private charity will pick up all those other functions of government, and the Libertoonian Utopia will arrive at last. We’ll have low taxes, all the supercolliders we want, and a super-techno-nano-pony in every pot.
It just won’t work that way. Modern science, particularly physics, has advanced to the point where progress can no longer be made on the Victorian model of the landed gentry tinkering around in their spare time in their home laboratories. The funding for my own experiments is smaller than the round-off error in most accelerator lab budgets, but when my NSF grant runs out, I’ll have spent something on the high side of a quarter million dollars building my lab (including salary for myself and my students). And I’m small fry even by AMO physics standards– a colleague who took a research university job at the same time I was hired here said that he needs to find something like $1 million in external grants per year just to keep his research group operating. And that’s one group out of a community of hundreds.
Science is an expensive business these days, and there’s just no way you’re going to be able to fund it all out of private donations. Relying on philanthropy is not a sound basis for a national science policy.
Now, I’m not saying that I think the donation was a Bad Thing. I think RHIC is doing fantastic science, and I’m glad to see that they’ll be able to continue operating. At the same time, though, I wouldn’t want to see private funding of major research become a trend, for fear of what that will mean for science down the road. At this point, it’s still a minor concern compared to the excellent news that RHIC will keep running, but there is a potential dark cloud lurking inside the silver lining.
(OK, I was wrong when I said I wouldn’t post anything substantive over the weekend…)