How do science administrators convince, say, US Congress to outlay huge $ for abstruse projects?

I’m thinking first and foremost of CERN. Do they have to bamboozle with “potential national security benefits,” or, of course, employment for people in each congressional district?

Absent clear examples of the first–which are handled by the government itself, eg (famously) Bomb project, Apollo (which was a Cold War/possibly military project)–how in the long run are issues such as the Higgs boson explained to a congressman to be worth repeatedly voting for?

CERN is funded by a bunch of European governments, not the US Congress.

Sorry. But you know what I mean.

Not really. You mentioned three projects. The first one in your argument is not correct, and the other two you’ve pretty much explained yourself.

Well, if you mean “how do people get governments to pony up for abstract scientific projects generally”, CERN was established as a collaboration between European governments to identify and develop peacetime nuclear applications. In other words, it was worth it in 1954 because they’d get improved fission reactors and all sorts of other nuclear stuff. At that time, remember, people (less so in Europe than the US, but still) thought atomic energy would be everywhere in a few decades, and that nuclear technology would revolutionize pretty much everything.

As to how CERN got its constituent governments to pony up funding for the Large Hadron Collider, there was a boost in funding in the 80s because of a bunch of astroparticle physics discoveries.

Pure abstract science still has some cachet, even in today’s Congress. (Oh, the things I would say if this were a debate thread!)

There is also the nationalist pitch: “If we don’t do this, the Europeans/ Chinese/ Japanese/ Russians/ New Zealanders might do it first!”

A number of arguments. There is little doubt that the early high level funding for particle physics came, in part, from a very recent memory of what happened last time a major advance in physics occurred. Being on top of such advances is clearly not abstruse and of no benefit. Recent history has disappointed in that there has been no new super weapon, or other high value technology drop out. But, and one needs to be pretty clear about this, you can’t say that it won’t happen. That is the whole point or fundamental science. You don’t know. That is why you look.

There are other reasons. Any government funded project creates jobs. So local politics comes into play. Being the congress critter or senator from where the SSC was to be built will mean you suddenly become a convert to the cause. The space programme could be reasonably accused of having grown inefficient and expensive on the back of this. Apollo was very carefully managed to spread the pork across every state of the union. (The amount of concomitant technology of direct military value that was developed only for Apollo, technology that would not already have been developed isn’t all that great. For instance the F1 engines, were already being designed for an expected military role. Manned spaceflight was pretty soon seen as not of much military value.)

National pride is a big aspect.

Actually it is very big part, and works in almost any nation. Politicians like big projects that they can get big media coverage from. This works in favour of big science and does work against ordinary level science. Almost every large project has drawn criticism from the scientists working on small projects that the big ones suck up too much money, and deplete the pool. One remembers the rounds of criticism of Hubble from the astronomical community. They could build so many ground based telescopes for the money that it was silly. As it was, Hubble delivered on the science, and no-one seriously suggests it was a bad investment science wise. It did things that were not otherwise possible, and adavnced the field significantly. Ground based telescope have caught up - albeit now with orders of magnitude higher cost than before, which is why the WST is not simply a Hubble replacement, but step up in science. There is little doubt astronomy funding benefited greatly on the back of Hubble and the other great observatories.

Creating jobs for the smart, technologically skilled is important. You don’t want to lose the skills, and you don’t want them to find undirected work that runs counter to the national interest - like making weapons for commercial sale to other nations.

Despite a lot of popular view, politicians are not universally stupid philistines. Most governments have a policy of supporting fundamental research as a public good - with varying levels of commitment. There is no doubt that, again, it adds to national pride. But beyond that, as a matter of human endeavour, it gets support. Pitching something at the level of LHC or the SSC is harder. There is no doubt that the LHC gains from being hard to kill - any individual country is not going to look good pulling out, and if they did, it doesn’t kill the project. Building large self perpetuating entities that are funded on a rolling basis is a great way to get large things done.

In the end, there is also a reasonable amount of public support, especially from those that actually vote for doing sciecne, and doing big science.

You might find these 432 pages of, um, light reading interesting: DOE Office of Science Budget Request.

You’ll see all the arguments made throughout: fundamental research is important in its own right; innovation; applications; jobs; … The arguments aren’t bamboozly at all. They’re honest and thorough. After all, it’s easiest to present a strong case using arguments one actually believes and is willing to back up.

The staff in the Office of Science or the NSF or wherever work together with the scientific community to converge on projects that have wide support in the field. Scientists can go to bat themselves by sharing their excitement with members of Congress through letters, calls, and organized Congressional visits.

For small enough projects or R&D efforts (few million to tens of millions of dollars), the go/no-go decision usually doesn’t make it explicitly to Congress but rather stays wih the scientific agency or even with laboratory management. But even here, there is very little discretionary wiggle room these days, and it’s very hard to get any traction for new projects at any scale.

Thanks for the answers. I shouldn’t have said “bamboozled,” and as I said, national pride, security, and unemployment are biggies.

I am absolutely not condemning big science funding, and as you said this is not GD.

The possible military uses–possible–is interesting. It’s like Rule 34. I was just wondering how the Higgs boson and the completion of the Standard Model could be explained militarily, that, being the most bullet-proof, is most dear to a congressman’s heart (bearing in mind your reminder that wealthy countries do support pure research).

Your suggestion that the research in fundamental particles is an interesting one. “Particles, you say? Fundamental research in particle physics paid off a zillion times in WW II. Fund it.” it seems to have had it’s image burnished the brightest. Even more so, I think than manned spaceflight.

Note: I am being snarky about military development R&D only to highlight a point. I have no problem with building and getting the best for the arsenal of democracy, an old-fashioned term I agree with.

Well, manned spaceflight also had indirect (and direct) military applications. I suspect a great deal of that data found its way into ICBM design.

I kind of get the impression it’s the other way around, actually. The Atlas rockets ultimately trace back to the Atlas missile, an early ICBM. Similarly, the Titan rockets were derived from Titan ICBMs, and the various Delta rockets ultimately can be traced back to the Thor intermediate range ballistic missile. For the rockets still in use (Atlas and Delta), I don’t know that much is left of the 1950s missile technology that they are the descendants of, but that’s where they got their start.

The Russian Proton rocket similarly started out life as an early ICBM design.

Yup. The ICBMs came before manned space, and the Mercury and Gemini missions were flown on ICBM boosters. Indeed it was management expertise developed for missiles that partly saved the Apollo project. Even the Saturn 1 was a a lash together of ICBM bits. As I note above, even the F1 engine that powered the first stage of the Saturn V was developed within the US Army (where von Braun’s team were) with an expected military use. It wasn’t until Apollo was well underway that von Braun was moved to NASA.

First, let’s discuss just who funds scientific research in the U.S. and what it goes toward:

So, as you can see, only 12.2% of the scientific research in the U.S. is funded by the government.

So, as you can also see, 52.67% of that funding goes toward defense research, 21.74% of it goes toward medical research, 7.56% of it goes toward energy research, and 7.43% of it goes toward space research. Only 3.71% of it is disbursed by the National Science Foundation, and that proportion is the part that might be described as blue-sky speculative research.

You never know how important basic research is going to be until you do it. In the second half of the nineteenth century, experiments into the movement of invisible particles probably seemed like a total waste of time and money. A few decades later, the world was running on electricity.

Although, thinking about it even more…the relationship is interestingly complex. I don’t think there’s much question that early rocket research pioneers (Tsiolkovsky, Oberth, Goddard) were romantics (well, romantic-hearted yet hard-headed scientists and engineers) who wanted to explore the Universe. But–however much resistance there may be these days to taxpayer support of pure scientific research–before World War II, governments were vastly more unwilling than they are now to fund ideas which seemed like “pie-in-the-sky”. And, before World War II made radar and computers and V-rockets and atomic bombs all become realities, talk of men flying around in outer space or walking on the Moon was seen as utter comic-book fantasy by “sensible” people. Thus, in order to gain any source of funding, some of the early rocket pioneers were willing to “sell” their science to various governments on the basis of its potential military applications. (Which is not to say that they did not also have patriotic/nationalist motivations, of course.) Still, this dynamic gave rise to the satirical saying about Wernher von Braun: “I aim at the stars, but sometimes I hit London.”

Credit where it’s due. That’s a Tom Lehrer joke.

Let’s back up a bit before any large funding request comes to Congress. In order for any large-scale project to occur, first the Executive Branch of the government must propose it. That can take many, many years to happen. The program managers, scientists and engineers must first get their own agencies (like a national lab or something) to support the program, generally by explaining how the program is achievable, affordable, and useful. Then the agencies must take the proposals to the cabinet departments and get their support; then the departments must take the proposals to the Office of Management and Budget in the White House after that.

Getting all of these ducks lined up to support something big is no small feat at all. Devoting more money to program X generally means less money for program Y, not to mention substantive criticism of the project. Every type of bureaucrat you can imagine gets a say somehow: from scientist bureaucrats weighing in on the substance, to budget bureaucrats weighing in on the cost, to leadership bureaucrats questioning why it needs to be done at all. Those arguments happen at every level (agency, department, OMB, etc.) of the discussions on whether or not the project should be pursued. Of course, getting high-level buy in is extremely helpful. For example, the National Ignition Facility was helped along by the end of the Cold War and the view of the President and other government leaders that nuclear weapons testing should be curtailed and perhaps eliminated. Again, this process isn’t usually played out over weeks or months, we can be talking many years to gather this sort of support.

Once the Executive Branch has blessed something, taking it to Congress is the next step. The President submits a budget every February, so again, if a program doesn’t make it into one budget proposal, everything has to wait for another year. It typically takes Congress eight or so months to examine the budget and approve it. But, as you can expect, by the time Congress sees the budget, the various committees and staffs will not be surprised when a big program appears in it. That’s because that big project will have been in the works for years, and none of the discussions within the Executive Branch will really be secret. Big programs tend to get the press interested, and heck, the President may even mention it in the State of the Union address.

Once Congress sees the budget proposal, it’s more or less the same process as what was done within the Executive Branch, except it is a separate a co-equal branch of government asking the questions. Will this succeed? How much will it cost? Will it take away from other programs that we support? Where is it going to be located? Is there strong political concerns about the nature of the program?

As a rule of thumb, Congress doesn’t really change the President’s budget proposals all that much. Over time, the Executive Branch probably gets 90-95 percent of what it wants… but the Executive Branch can change its mind on what it wants as it gauges support and opposition in Congress. In my opinion, I’d say the work that is done to gather support for a big R&D program in the Executive Branch is a lot more laborious than what goes into convincing Congress to support the program.

Now, there are many variations on this process. Sometimes research projects are pushed by Congress as opposed to being formulated in the Executive Branch; the one example that comes to mind is the 1980’s research on turning coal into liquid fuels or clean-coal power technologies have powerful support from coal-state congressmen that really pushed those initiatives. But over the time it takes to conceive, design, and execute a large project like we’re talking about, political winds in Congress tend to shift. Senators lose re-election, control of Congress changes now and then, and so on – whereas the bureaucracy remains the bureaucracy, and despite changes in agency leadership and presidents, it can be harder for the bureaucracy to change course than for political leaders to change their mind. That’s again why getting Executive Branch support for a program tends to require more work.

Out of interest, would a new super-collider in the US be a total non-starter? I’m wondering what the capacity of CERN is to allow US researchers to do some work there.
I think the case for one of these facilities on planet earth is clear; the case for two seems considerably more difficult to make. Especially in light of the last initiative in Texas being a 2 billion dollar hole in the ground (AFAIK).

Support of boson research by Congress was simply professional courtesy.

The US has observer status at CERN. There are Americans on staff and as visiting researchers.

The Texas collider was cancelled because of budget concerns, and the wasted $2 billion was entirely the consequence of cancelling the project mid-stream.

Then and now, the rants about spending billions of dollars on basic science programs (the Mars Curiosity program cost $2.5 billion) take place without any context for those figures. Sure $2 billion seems like a lot, but we spend $8 billion a year for TSA agents to make people take their shoes off at airports. We spend $6 billion on ethanol subsidies.