During a very good documentary called Particle Fever on the Higgs boson particle during an explanatory speech by one of the subjects of the movie, an economist asks a question, paraphrased:

“What is the economic growth impact of this study?”

This is an extremely important question.  But it’s important to different people for different reasons.  There is a more important underlying question, but I struggle with how to word it.  The main point is that of economic impact–should every study, action or idea be evaluated and executed based on an economic return on investment?

Depending on your prerogative, the answer can change.  The economist in the video phrased his question in a way that seems to presuppose that economic ends must warrant the means.  There are likely economists that do not believe that everything we do from a societal standpoint requires economic stimulus, much like there are probably scientists who believe all scientific study should further develop economies.  I assume that most people in their respective fields tend to be driven more by the understanding of the fields though–that scientists want to understand the universe and that economists want to see economic growth.

In business, understanding the likely impact of an investment is paramount to long term success, and asking that question makes a lot of sense.  In science however, the search for understanding our surroundings may not immediately show returns.  Does that mean that we should be focusing solely on things that can be monetized?  Of course not.

What’s truly interesting in these spaces is that there is a tendency for scientific research to uncover findings that can lead to economic development in the long term.  The medical industry is an excellent example, which is a tremendous part of our economy that has incorporated scientific research continually.  However initial studies likely had no real projections for stimulus.  The field early discovery in the field leads to long term value.

From a philosophical perspective, the idea that we should only expend resources for economic reasons is abhorrent to me.  There is more to this world than money.  I do comprehend that these types of studies are VERY costly, but if we are talking about making money versus understanding our universe, ideologically I’ll vote for the latter.  I have an astrophysicist friend who has explained to me the constant need for funding in the form of grants for the universities doing the research on these studies.

This question, previously cited, is the reason that the US has cut the NASA budget, as well as multiple other programs.  It’s something we’ll continue to think about and be an important question for our long term governance; you may want to consider your position on it at some point.

Below find a trailer for the documentary, I’d highly recommend it.