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Tuesday, July 10, 2012
In one of the great scenes in one of the great television series Homer Simpson is philosophising from his couch as he uses his TV’s remote control to flick aimlessly from channel to channel.
This bucolic, domestic idyll provokes a line that celebrates the habit of taking human achievement for granted and points to a kind of blindness to the wonderful discoveries of science that is probably all too common.
"What," asks our languid Plato, "has science ever done for me?" as satellites orbiting the globe thousands of miles above Springfield more or less instantaneously respond to his remote-control button hopping.
Homer Simpson, though he worked at a nuclear power plant, may not have been directly involved in the decades of work that led to last week’s announcement that a fundamental particle, one previously only described in theory, had been discovered.
The identification of the Higgs boson — the "God particle" — has been ranked with the great discoveries of the age, some even suggest it is the scientific discovery of the millennium. The discovery was made possible by information coming from Cern’s Large Hadron Collider, the most powerful particle-smashing tool in the world — none of which would have been possible without a significant and long-term commitment to fund scientific research.
Yesterday the European Commission announced a €8.1bn package to fund research right across the European community. Though the primary objective is to strengthen Europe’s competitiveness on international markets and tackle issues such as human health, protecting the environment, resolving the challenges presented by urbanisation and managing waste, it is impossible to predict what might be discovered as a byproduct of this work. The funding — open to organisations and businesses in all EU states and partner countries — represents the lion’s share of the EU’s proposed €10.8bn research budget for next year.
Ireland secured €384m from the EU for research over the last four years — 67% of which went to third-level institutions, 25% to the private sector and 8% to state agencies like the marine institute. This figure, even when combined with domestic commitments, is really too low as it is well below international standards. Unfortunately, the official commitment to research funding is mirrored by most multinational companies with facilities in Ireland — some of them are particularly reluctant to fund research here. It may not be the moment to crack this particular whip but maybe we should in time encourage — or coerce — these companies to spend more on R&D on this island.
Of course it would make that prospect all the easier to realise if our unfortunate issues around teaching maths and the sciences were resolved.
The do-or-die issues surrounding research are simple enough. Even a Homer Simpson would grasp that the point in human history when the world’s population soars, a point when billions struggle with poverty and hunger, the point when human activity is changing the planet’s climate science, is central to the developments that promise humanity a viable future on this stretched and finite collection of atoms.
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