Mega science - in the name of mega bucks

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 August, 2010, 12:00am

Funding for mega science projects is always controversial, even in the richest countries.

Professor Tony Chan Fan-cheong,

President, HK University of Science and Technology,

SCMP Insight page, August 25

And there is no doubting on what side of this controversy Professor Chan stands. He's all gung-ho for multibillion-dollar toys for scientists. It can make us rich, he says, and we can have it by piggybacking on big projects that China undertakes.

The immediate question arises. What do we have to offer? Well, says Chan, we could contribute money, ideas, equipment, or maybe participate in analysing data.

Hands up now, and this is a tough question so think about it good and hard first, but which of these four do you think the choice would come down to in the event? I lie. It was easy. The clue is that the idea came from an academic. These are people to whom we gave special job security so that they may feel completely free to express themselves for the good of society, as in their most common expression - 'gimme me more money'.

Okay, okay, they're not all like that, just the large majority of those who manage to climb anywhere up the academic ladder. Their song also never changes. When the financial secretary gave them an HK$18 billion research fund in his budget three years ago, did he get a thank you? No, he did not. What he got was the chorus singing its standard response - 'gimme more'. What all such academics really worship is the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. It is their ultimate shrine, a monument to the success of an academic lobby that convinced 11 European governments to spend billions for a huge piece of kit to look for something called the Higgs boson.

Finding it may save some people the embarrassment of having to rethink earlier theories about the outer edges of the universe, an immeasurably worthwhile objective.

Their quest for the Higgs boson already has as much of religious fervour as it does of scientific endeavour and, in good religious style, its devotees are out to proselytise for more.

An even bigger collider is now being planned as is a big fusion reactor in France. Fusion power has never worked yet but perhaps the problem is that all the previous reactors were too small. This leads to an obvious conclusion - 'gimme more money'.

Some of the fallacies of Chan's assertions have already been highlighted by my colleague, Tom Holland, in the Monitor column on Thursday. Chan argued, for instance, that big science toys make you rich because Switzerland is wealthier than Hong Kong.

Yes, he may not have done a complete job of setting out his sequence of logic there, but we won't bother as the premise of Switzerland being wealthier is dubious anyway. As Tom pointed out, it relies on a rather selective cut of gross domestic product per capita figures. Do it differently and you come to the opposite conclusion.

I shall make it simple. A Large Hadron Collider does not make you rich. Of course it doesn't. It only does that if you are the town of Geneva and can convince the rest of Europe to build it under your airport. All that this proves is that the city fathers of Geneva are superb civic salesmen.

What we really need to do with this mix of academia and money is put in less money, not more. We already have too many universities, eight of them, one for every 50 square kilometres of land area. Only Zhuhai builds them denser.

This over-emphasis on higher education just leads to frustrated graduates who cannot find jobs to match their academic credentials. We now have almost 24 per cent of our workforce holding degrees from tertiary institutes of education, double what the figure was 14 years ago. The starting salary for fresh graduates is about HK$10,000 a month and it doesn't move up very quickly from there.

I pity the young people caught in this trap. It's not even good enough to get a bachelor's degree these days. You have to get a master's degree or employers won't even look at you, they're so spoiled for choice. Have we really served ourselves well with this excess?

And as to all those fine research projects that we are also supposed to get from academia, the achievements are much ballyhooed but look pretty thin when actually on display. Hong Kong stands out for research talent that has left Hong Kong and who wouldn't when the Employers' Federation has managed to suppress incomes for those who remain?

Walk around Cyberport some day for a first-hand experience of Hong Kong's thriving research brains trust. You'll join my movement to rename the place Cyberia. Its anthem, by the way, is the common one - 'Gimme more money'. Let's not.