By John D. Gibbon
I’ve just returned home to London from a month in India on a collaborative research trip in an attempt to finish a piece of work with 8 co-authors and to begin two new projects. In the aftermath of such visits, friends in the UK from outside academia often ask me, somewhat obliquely, what was it that I was actually doing? After all, it is implied, none too subtly, that Professors give lectures – understandable for someone who works in little more than a glorified High School — but the research part is incomprehensible, and is thus dismissed by the questioner as unimportant. Don’t scientists spin vague theories about impossible processes beyond their understanding? Don’t mathematicians just deal only with ever larger numbers? Why does one need to travel to do that, and who cares anyway?
Much of this sadly comic attitude comes from a lack of understanding of the nature of science and what scientists actually do. In her 2015 book, “The Story of Science: from the writings of Aristotle to the Big Bang Theory” (W. W. Norton, NY) Susan Wise Bauer wrote:
“The nature of science itself seems to get lost in the details. Most ‘people’, regular citizens who have no professional training in the sciences, still have no clear view of what science does — or what it means.”
In the first chapter of my book “Science and the Knowledge of God”, I have tried to pick up on this theme to explain how professional scientists are more akin to members of a global village which has inter-locking components and collaborations stretching in networks across the planet. For more than a generation, members of the world’s scientific communities have been acting in a globalized manner long before the media became aware of the concept.
Let me add some extra fuel to this argument. When I tell friends that my own institution, Imperial College London, turns over $1.2Bn annually, they try to not look shocked. When I add that by far the greatest proportion of this total is research grant money they look even more puzzled. The fact is that the research sciences run on money just as an engine runs on fuel: experimental laboratories and large-scale computing facilities are massively expensive. Allow me to bore you, dear reader, with some facts and figures (Science Magazine (AAAS) Dec. 18th, 2015). The annual budget (2016) voted by Congress for the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) is $32Bn; that of the National Science Foundation (NSF) is $7.45Bn; that of NASA is $5.6Bn and that of the US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) is $2.7Bn. In addition, the Office of Science at the Department of Energy (DoE) gets $5.35Bn to manage and fund 10 National Labs such as Los Alamos or Lawrence Livermore. Basic research within the Department of Defense (DoD) has a budget of $2.31Bn and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has about $2.87Bn. The Pentagon is the USA’s major funder of basic research at universities in a number of fields, including computer science, mathematics, and some engineering disciplines. The total is just over $58Bn without the agricultural sciences being included. A big proportion of this total will be filtered through the US university system as grant money. The scale of the NIH budget, which comes in at more than half this total, illustrates the shift from the physical to the biomedical sciences over this last 20 years. Add to this total the research budgets of the UK, France, Germany and Japan (and now India and China), together with substantial money allocated by EU-funded programs, plus the efforts of private companies such as members of Big Pharma, the Aerospace Industry and Silicon Valley, and one has large amounts of money that fund the laboratories, machinery, computing facilities and salaries that make up the interlocking global research world.
I also made the point in my book that science funding now also has a multi-state-sponsored, industrial and political dimension which has culminated in the collaborative experiments such as the space telescopes (e.g. Hubble) or the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. Some scientists are but small cogs in the engine of one of these collective, multi-state-sponsored ‘Big Science’ experiments which are now too expensive even for a single government. It is clear that while these experiments have an enormously high public profile, this can also have a distorting effect. Despite the wide range of admirable engineering, instrumentation physics, and data analysis methods employed, these ventures still touch only a small fraction of what physical, engineering and bio-medical scientists actually do in reality. The annual publication output of this greater cohort across the planet runs into tens of millions of technical scientific papers, but only a relatively small proportion are concerned with high profile issues. It is therefore unfortunate that many questions about the nature of our universe asked by working scientists have fallen under the radar because the media and popular writers concentrate on either high-profile or controversial matters. Thus many Christians have been persuaded, incorrectly, that a few subjects, such as astronomy, high energy particle physics or evolutionary biology, are the only subjects that scientists study. Extreme opinion even holds that scientific activity is, at best, highly suspicious, and, at worst, a conspiracy to delude the world. Such attitudes are a gross misrepresentation of how things work in practice.
I have many close and valued friends and collaborators around the world who travel incessantly but without the funding access to the First or Business Class travel available to many in the business world. They do little but work, travel & sleep (occasionally) but never have time to read anything beyond the papers on their laptop or iPad. An absence from a meeting or conference means a lack of exposure of one’s latest results, thereby putting in jeopardy the next grant proposal. Among those senior people in a field when asked to review and grade NSF or NIH proposals (or even sit on the committees), few have the time to fully read the enormous number of proposals in detail, so they depend upon seeing a summary of the work at a conference: “Didn’t I hear a talk about that last week?” Being absent from that conference could be fatal for the proposer. Climbing back onto the fast-rolling log after one has taken a fall can be extremely difficult. Grant money is not a vanity but a necessity to be able to run labs & computing facilities. In Physics or Engineering the start-up cost of a lab for a newly appointed young Faculty member is about a million dollars. Grant money also factors ever more strongly into the metrics that increasingly dominate the world where “evaluation” is demanded at every level.
Although still research active, now that I am an Emeritus Professor, I am able to look back with gratitude on a career full of great excitement and very hard work, with hopefully still more to come. It’s all been great fun, which I hope will go on for a while yet. There is, however, another side to this coin. For a Christian working at the top levels of international research — I know very few — the life one is forced to lead can be both relentlessly demanding and numbing to the soul, especially when there is no time to look at things from the perspective of eternity.
The Preacher in Ecclesiastes (1:1-4) nailed it when he looked at the value of human endeavour when God Himself is ignored:
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
What did he conclude in the final and 12th chapter (verse 1)? His wise words were: “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth …” The two Parables of ‘The Hidden Treasure’ and ‘The Pearl of Great Value’ in Matthew 13:44-45 remind us that the search for knowledge only has a true and lasting meaning when it ends up finding Jesus Christ.