Politics is overcrowded with problems of unimaginable scale – environmental degradation, the pensions timebomb, social care, corruption in Africa and revolution in the Middle East. In each case, timescales are measured in the decades and half-centuries – yet politicians rarely look beyond the next election.
Science, however, seems to work inexorably and cooperatively towards the solutions to the biggest questions of the age. The Higgs Boson was proposed before David Cameron was born, and proven to exist over two years after he became Prime Minister; yet he can’t even predict with confidence what his own legislative agenda will be in three short months.
Can politics learn from science about setting & achieving far-reaching goals, and ignoring the siren calls of short-termism?
The search for the Higgs boson is a saga surpassing that of a simple scientific discovery. It is a story of science, power, money, and politics. If even one of these was missing, we’d still be looking.
First, the science. No one tribe of scientists gave us the Higgs; it was instead a multitude of disciplines all converging with a common goal – a conductorless symphony of physicists, mathematicians, engineers, programmers, experimenters, theoreticians, and more. Even competing teams of scientists worked together to build a hoard of data which, when combined, proved the existence of the final particle to a near-bulletproof level of confidence.
Fundamental science seems to be lagging behind in the money game, and this is demonstrated in the Research Excellence Framework which puts a great deal of emphasis on “Impact” and “Applicability”. Considering that the last useful particle to be discovered was the neutron in 1920, fundamental science has taken quite a blow on the money front. But somehow, dedicated scientists pushed to ensure there was enough funding to last the whole journey.
The team was not based purely at CERN, but was a global collaboration, where scientists and engineers were required to plan 20 years into the future, even guessing at times, what new technology would exist. I am not sure about you, but I can hardly see past lunch time, so I am deeply impressed by the foresight demonstrated.
Next there’s the pure commitment and patience that has gone into the project. The search for the Higgs has literally outlived governments, unlike most government policies. Scientists planned into the future and were able to prepare for it, if only we could say the same for politics.
If there is indeed a lesson to be learned from the scientific method, and in particular the discovery of the Higgs, it is that only collaboration, foresight and planning will solve the world’s most pressing problems.
But what do I know, I’m a dog.