If I ruled the world

Rolf-Dieter Heuer

Governments must spend more on pure scientific research, says the director-general of Cern. That would protect the world from recession

Rolf-Dieter Heuer with one of the 1,232 dipole magnets used in the Large Hadron Collider

International law should oblige governments to invest in basic science, through hard times as well as good. Applied science—making everything from MRI scanners to electricity—is largely the job of the private sector, and the biggest risk to future prosperity is that the pure scientific research which underpins it dries up. Without this basic science, industry and society as a whole will be impoverished.

“One day, sir, you may tax it!” was Michael Faraday’s apocryphal riposte to William Gladstone’s question about the utility of his investigations into electricity. More recently, Robert Wilson, the great American particle physicist told his paymasters, who had asked what particle physics did for the defence of the US: “Nothing, except to make it worth defending.” Wilson did his field an injustice. Particle physics technology has found all kinds of uses: security scanning is just one.

In times of plenty, governments are good at supporting science. But when times are tough, their instinct is to look for winners to pull the economy out of recession in time for the next election. Instead, they should put more money into science to help future growth. It takes far-sighted leadership to make that decision.

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