I have worked with Arup for 16 years and...
So, the Higgs Boson has been found. Cue debate on the value of research - and throw in a comparison with the cost of bailing out banks for good measure (e.g. the recent BBC interview with Brian Cox in which he pointed out that the latter cost more than we have spent on scientific research ‘since Jesus’).
Media coverage has tended to take one of two lines: a university professor trying to explain what the Higgs Boson is, or some other commentator (who probably struggled with the former) running a cost per gram calculation based on the build and running cost of the Large Hadron Collider.
The value question is often wrongly put though. Rather than ‘Was it worth it?’, we should be asking ‘How is it realised?’. Finding the Higgs Boson, the discovery of graphene and mapping the human genome are all the products of very effective academic research systems. In the UK, the practitioners are normally university employees and the funding is from the Research Councils (i.e. government), with occasional industrial support. The deliverable of such projects is a peer reviewed technical paper. The value of this work to society (or the tax payer, if you prefer) is in the products that the commercial sector brings to market five, ten or 20 years later.
Some might argue that research is pure science, untainted by commerce and so somewhat speculative in terms of societal benefits. Product development, on the other hand, is a carefully costed investment activity (bankers again), taking due account of future sales – and indirectly – consumer benefit. Again, this stage of the process runs pretty well. But how do you get from brilliant academic output to functioning products? Only by taking care of the middle ground, between the boffin and the buyer, and here the process is a lot less developed.
University spin-offs, government sponsored innovation agencies (such as the UK’s Technology Strategy Board) or deep pocketed, research minded, large corporates (think ‘big pharma’) are three ways in which the gap is currently bridged. 'R&D' tax credits are another, intended to encourage industry to pick up where academia loses interest or lacks capability.
The UK Government’s budget for the TSB is a fraction of that for the Research Councils. Corporates aren’t flush with cash or big on risk at the moment, and university spin-offs will only work well for small scale ideas – provided some commercial expertise can be made available.
Realising (making real) the value of research requires that it be nurtured, supported, loved - every step of the way. Finding Higgs Bosons is the easy bit, selling them may prove to be harder.