High Energy Physics: What Is It Really Good For?

Article: Forecasting the Socio-Economic Impact of the Large Hadron Collider: a Cost-Benefit Analysis to 2025 and Beyond
Authors: Massimo Florio, Stefano Forte, Emanuela Sirtori
Reference: arXiv:1603.00886v1 [physics.soc-ph]

Imagine this. You’re at a party talking to a non-physicist about your research.

If this scenario already has you cringing, imagine you’re actually feeling pretty encouraged this time. Your everyday analogy for the Higgs mechanism landed flawlessly and you’re even getting some interested questions in return. Right when you’re feeling like Neil DeGrasse Tyson himself, your flow grinds to a halt and you have to stammer an awkward answer to the question every particle physicist has nightmares about.

“Why are we spending so much money to discover these fundamental particles? Don’t they seem sort of… useless?”

Well, fair question. While us physicists simply get by with a passion for the field, a team of Italian economists actually did the legwork on this one. And they came up with a really encouraging answer.

The paper being summarized here performed a cost-benefit analysis of the LHC from 1993 to 2025, in order to estimate its eventual impact on the world at large. Not only does that include benefit to future scientific endeavors, but to industry and even the general public as well. To do this, they called upon some classic non-physics notions, so let’s start with a quick economics primer.

  • A cost benefit analysis (CBA) is a common thing to do before launching a large-scale investment project. The LHC collaboration is a particularly tough thing to analyze; it is massive, international, complicated, and has a life span of several decades.
  • In general, basic research is notoriously difficult to justify to funding agencies, since there are no immediate applications. (A similar problem is encountered with environmental CBAs, so there are some overlapping ideas between the two.) Something that taxpayers fund without getting any direct use of the end product is referred to as a non-use value.
  • When trying to predict the future gets fuzzy, economists define something called a quasi option value. For the LHC, this includes aspects of timing and resource allocation (for example, what potential quality-of-life benefits come from discovering supersymmetry, and how bad would it have been if we pushed these off another 100 years?)
  • One can also make a general umbrella term for the benefit of pure knowledge, called an existence value. This involves a sort of social optimization; basically what taxpayers are willing to pay to get more knowledge.

The actual equation used to represent the different costs and benefits at play here is below.






Let’s break this down by terms.

PVCu is the sum of operating costs and capital associated with getting the project off the ground and continuing its operation.

PVBu is the economic value of the benefits. Here is where we have to break down even further, into who is benefitting and what they get out of it:

  1. Scientists, obviously. They get to publish new research and keep having jobs. Same goes for students and post-docs.
  2. Technological industry. Not only do they get wrapped up in the supply chain of building these machines, but basic research can quickly turn into very profitable new ideas for private companies.
  3. Everyone else. Because it’s fun to tour the facilities or go to public lectures. Plus CERN even has an Instagram now.

Just to give you an idea of how much overlap there really is between all these sources of benefit,  Figure 1 shows the monetary amount of goods procured from industry for the LHC. Figure 2 shows the number of ROOT software downloads, which, if you are at all familiar with ROOT, may surprise you (yes, it really is very useful outside of HEP!)


Amount of money (thousands of Euros) spent on industry for the LHC. pCp is past procurement, tHp1 is the total high tech procurement, and tHp2 is the high tech procurement for orders > 50 kCHF.
Figure 1: Amount of money (thousands of Euros) spent on industry for the LHC. pCp is past procurement, tHp1 is the total high tech procurement, and tHp2 is the high tech procurement for orders > 50 kCHF.
Figure 2: Number of ROOT software downloads over time.
Figure 2: Number of ROOT software downloads over time.











The rightmost term encompasses the non-use value, which is the difference between the sum of the quasi-option value QOV0 and existence value EXV0. If it sounded hard to measure a quasi-option value, it really is. In fact, the authors of this paper simply set it to 0, as a worst case value.

The other values come from in-depth interviews of over 1500 people, including all different types of physicists and industry representatives, as well as previous research papers. This data is then funneled into a computable matrix model, with a cell for each cost/benefit variable, for each year in the LHC lifetime. One can then create a conditional probability distribution function for the NPV value using Monte Carlo simulations to deal with the stochastic variables.

The end PDF is shown in Figure 2, with an expected NPV of 2.9 billion Euro! This also shows a expected benefit/cost ratio of 1.2; a project is generally considered justifiable if this ratio is greater than 1. If this all seems terribly exciting (it is), it never hurts to contact your Congressman and tell them just how much you love physics. It may not seem like much, but it will help ensure that the scientific community continues to get projects on the level of the LHC, even during tough federal budget times.

Figure 2: Net present value PDF (left) and cumulative distribution (right).
Figure 3: Net present value PDF (left) and cumulative distribution (right).











Here’s hoping this article helped you avoid at least one common source of awkwardness at a party. Unfortunately we can’t help you field concerns about the LHC destroying the world. You’re on your own with that one.


Further Reading:

  1. Another supercollider that didn’t get so lucky: The SSC story
  2. More on cost-benefit analysis