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Big Science In Regional Economic Context: Daresbury And ALICE

April 13, 2008

Investment in scientific programmes often has added socio-economic value. But there is little evidence that good indices are available to measure what this impact might be for large-scale scientific regionally-based development. Whilst private investors guard their capital with care, only rarely do the criteria for evaluation of Big Science proposals include adequate consideration of the wider impact of public funds invested.

The bovine foot and mouth pyres of a few years ago are testament to unintentional damage inflicted when strictly focused ‘science’ is applied crudely in wider socio-economic contexts.

Everyone wanted to do the right thing; but the upshot of scientific best advice was rural economic devastation.

What criteria?
The same scenario may be enacted again, if the judgement of a panel of leading scientists results in removal of the ALICE (Accelerators and Lasers in Combined Experiments) programme at the Daresbury Laboratory in North-West England.

The science will carry on elsewhere, most probably in the USA, but the NW regional economy, which could have benefited hugely, will instead take a hammerblow.

Best value for government investment
Scientists quite rightly concentrate on what they understand – in this case physics, engineering and the like. I cannot comment on their scientific judgements about ALICE; though it is always open to their colleagues have views on this.

Whatever, the investment of significant government monies must also, as numbers of parliamentarians have argued, be about best value in socio-economic terms, as well as indicated by narrower scientific parameters; and the scientists would without doubt agree they are not best placed to adjudicate all this.

Socio-economic impact studies
If the relevant science councils have undertaken regional socio-economic impact studies on their proposed investments, these, like the scientific appraisals, must now be opened to public scrutiny.

If they have not, we must challenge the science councils to undertake these comparative impact studies immediately, before potentially devastating decisions are made.

Added value – or otherwise
Added value‘ (perhaps significantly, a term often used to evaluate the impact of educational initiatives) and ‘unintended consequences‘ (c.f. Robert Merton’s work) may be indices beyond the lexicon of physical science; but, as the rural economists acknowledged after foot and mouth disease, they can never be outside the remit of decisions about big investment, in the public interest, of taxpayers’ money.

A version of this article, entitled ‘Alice in economic context’, was published on the Letters page of Guardian Education on 15 April 2008.

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