Lurking behind the debate over the high energy physics budget is a meta question that rarely gets addressed head-on: in a world with many things that we would like to do, but limited resources to do them, how do we decide what questions are interesting enough to warrant our attention? This question arises at every level. If we have a certain number of dollars to spend on particle physics, how much should go to the high-energy frontier and how much to smaller-scale experiments? Within fundamental science, how much should go to physics and how much to biology or astronomy or whatever? And it’s not just money: within a university, how many faculty positions should go to historians, and how many to archaeologists? Within philosophy, how many logicians do we need, and how many ethicists? It’s not even an especially academic question: which book am I going to bring with me to read on the plane?
There are a number of issues that get tied up in such considerations. One is that certain activities simply require certain resources, so if we judge them sufficiently interesting to be pursued then we need to be prepared to devote the appropriate resources their way. A colleague of mine in condensed-matter physics was fond of complaining about all the great small-scale physics that his community could do if they only had half of Fermilab’s budget. Which is undoubtedly true, but with half of Fermilab’s budget you wouldn’t get half the science out of Fermilab — you wouldn’t get anything at all. If that kind of particle physics is worth doing at all (which is a completely fair question), there is an entry fee you can’t avoid paying.
But more deeply, the problem is that there is no intrinsic property of “interestingness” that we can compare across different academic questions. Questions are not interesting in and of themselves; they are interesting to somebody. If I happen to not be interested in the American Civil War, and a friend of mine thinks it’s fascinating, that doesn’t mean that one of us is “right” and the other “wrong”; it just means that we have different opinions about the interestingness of that particular subject. It’s precisely the same kind of personal decision that goes into preferences for different kinds of music or cuisine. The difference is that, unlike CD’s or appetizers, we don’t consume these goods individually; we need to make some collective decision about how to allocate our intellectual resources.
People pretend that there are objective criteria, of course. The standard battle lines within physics are drawn between research that is “fundamental” and research that is “useful.” I was once in the audience for a colloquium by Steven Weinberg, back in the days when we were still planning on the Superconducting Supercollider, and he was talking about why particle physics was worthy of substantial investment: “People sometimes object to the way we speak about particle physics, objecting that we give the impression that it’s more `fundamental’ than other fields. But I think it’s okay, because … well, it is more fundamental.” Contrariwise, I’ve heard condensed-matter physicists wonder with a straight face why anyone in the general public would be interested in books on string theory and cosmology. After all, those subjects have no impact at all on their everyday lives, so what is the possible interest?
In reality, there is no objective metaphysical standard to separate the interesting from the uninteresting. There are a bunch of human beings with different interests, and we have the social task of balancing them. A complication arises in the context of academia, where we don’t weigh everyone’s interests equally — there are experts whose opinions count for more than those on the streets. And that makes sense; even if I have no idea which directions in contemporary chemistry or French literature are interesting, I am more than willing to leave such questions in the hands of people who care deeply and have contributed to the fields.
The real problem, of course, is that sometimes we have to compare between fields, so that decisions have to be made by people who are almost certainly not experts in all of the competing interests. We have, for example, the danger of self-perpetuation, where a small cadre of experts in an esoteric area continue to insist on the importance of their work. That’s where it becomes crucial to be able to explain to outsiders why certain questions truly are interesting, even if the outsiders can’t appreciate all the details. In fundamental physics, we actually have a relatively easy time of it, our fondness for kvetching notwithstanding; it’s not too hard to appreciate the importance of concepts like “the laws of nature” and “the beginning of the universe,” even to people who don’t follow the math. Making a convincing request for a billion dollars is, of course, a different story.
Sadly, none of these high-minded considerations are really at work in the current budget debacle. High-energy physics seems to be caught in a pissing match between the political parties, each of whom wants to paint the other as irresponsible.
The White House and congressional leaders exchanged barbs Tuesday over who was to blame for the Fermilab impasse. Lawmakers said the Bush administration’s tight overall budget targets tied their hands, while a spokesman for Bush’s Office of Management and Budget said the Democratic leaders could have met the targets by cutting back on other discretionary elements of the budget.
Durbin said the $196 billion required for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan left little room for budget maneuvering.
“We were left with stark choices: reduce funding for high-end physics or cut money for veterans; reduce spending at Fermilab or eliminate funding for rural hospitals,” Durbin said in a statement Tuesday.
Sean Kevelighan, a spokesman for the administration’s Office of Management and Budget, said Congress could have chosen instead to take more money from the $9.7 billion worth of earmarks designated for lawmakers’ projects.
“The choices were up to the Congress,” Kevelighan said.
As annoying as academia can be, politics is infinitely worse.