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Physics LibreTexts

1.25 Modern Scientific Research

Modern science can be very expensive. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, a particle accelerator that discovered the Higgs particle in 2013, cost $10 billion to reach that goal. NASA's Hubble Space Telescope (HST), now well into its third decade as a space observatory, has also cost about $10 billion. These are some of the most ambitious science experiments every designed; many science projects are more modest and cost far less. The cost and complexity of big projects like the LHC and the HST are a reflection of the success of science. As scientists succeed in explaining the physical universe, the questions that remain are more profound and more difficult to solve, requiring ever more sophisticated instruments. Thousands of scientists work on these big projects.


An aerial view of the CERN. Because of its massive size and complexity, it is an amazing edition to modern science as well as being extremely expensive. Click here for original source URL

It was not always this way. The first scientists were philosophers in ancient Greece. They were the aristocrats of their culture; they kept servants and slaves and had the luxury of not doing physical labor. During the Renaissance, science was not a profession as we know it now. The few people that could be described as scientists were doing it as a recreation and they were rarely paid for it. Galileo had as his patron Cosimo de Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Tycho Brahe was supported by King Frederick II of Denmark. A major transition occurred in 1660 with the formation of the Royal Society in England. Although it had a royal charter from King Charles II, it was a learned society where the scientist members called the shots. This was the beginning of science as an organized activity, with meetings and publications, and an active membership. Isaac Newton played a big role in enhancing the prestige of the Royal Society when he was its president from 1703 to 1727. Science in those days was cheap. Galileo used two lenses to gain a deeper view of the night sky and confirm the Copernican hypothesis. Newton used two prisms to learn about the fundamental nature of color and light. Faraday used simple magnets and coils of wire to show that electricty and magnetism were related.

The modern enterprise of science did not emerge until after the Second World War. In Europe and the United States, universities that had primarily had a teaching mission took on the responsibility of searching for new knowledge. Vannevar Bush, and engineer and advisor to President Roosevelt, argued that the American government should support scientific research, and he wrote a highly influential report in 1945 arguing that basic science was the driver of technological progress. By 1950, NASA and the National Science Foundation had started, and government funded research grew steadily for the following half century. Overall funding for research and development worldwide is over a trillion dollars a year, with the United States accounting for 40 percent of this total. Most of this investment is made by industry and corporations for applications that have commercial value. A basic or pure science like astronomy is a small fraction of this pie. Most astronomy is supported by governments through grants to universities and research institutes. Federal funding of astronomy is a few billion dollars a year. This sounds like a lot of money but it doesn't go far when telescopes and instruments are so complex and expensive.

Most astronomers work at universities and colleges. They teach and do research as part of their job. Universities benefit in terms of prestige and revenue when scientists get external grants to fund their research. The grants typically pay summer salary to the professor, they are used to pay graduate students and postocs to work on the project, and they pay for travel to observatories and conferences, and for publication in the professional journals, which often run more than a hundred dollars per page. Some scientists built instruments or run laboratory experiments, and so they need to employ technicians and engineers. Theoretical research is less expensive, but even then travel to conferences and publication is required. There are observatories open to all astronomers, such as the Kitt Peak and Cerro Tololo national facilities in Arizona and Chile, and some that are only open to astronomers from institutions that operate the telescopes, such as the Keck Observatory.

The entire budget for astronomy is about 0.1 percent of the federal budget. All scientific research and development is about 2.5% of the federal budget. Economists have made the case that this is a good investment in term of jobs and future economic growth. Astronomy is fundamental research with no obvious applications, yet it has led to advances in detectors and image processing that have benefited other fields. There is value, too, in understanding our place in the universe and in being inspired by the wonders of the night sky.


The street facade of the Piccadilly wing of Burlington House in London, England, where the Royal Society in England was based. Click here for original source URL.