Particle physics in public: legitimising curiosity-driven research on the Higgs boson and beyond
The publicity surrounding the discovery of the Higgs boson hints at the enduring status of curiosity-driven research in modern society. However, the contemporary governance of scientific research emphasises efficiency, impact and social responsibility. In this context, the value and importance of the Higgs boson demands justification. This thesis therefore examines the ways in which members of the particle and high-energy physics community account for themselves and their scientific contributions at the nexus of science, policy and society. The qualitative evaluation of the outcome and performance of scientific research inevitably references researchers’ accounts of their actions. Hence, the aim of this thesis is to develop an analytic framework that can unravel the construction of the value of research and examine the characteristics of the justifications offered. The methodology of this thesis is inspired by the Analysis of Scientific Discourse (ASD) proposed by Nigel Gilbert and Michael Mulkay (1984). ASD considers scientists’ texts and talk as activities in need of explanation rather than resources for explanation. As a result, I analysed the patterns, discursive strategies and storylines of the naturally occurring talk I generated from the qualitative interviews with the UK and European particle physicists, and with the staff members of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. Moreover, I compared the discursive characteristics of the naturally occurring talk with that of the working documents of the European Strategy for Particle Physics (2006, 2013). I argue that the discursive pattern presented when justifying the value and importance of particle and high-energy physics indicates a hierarchy of interests among the European particle physics community. Despite explaining the impacts and societal benefits of their research, the data sources (documents and interviewees) constantly emphasised the curiosity-driven purpose of research. Moreover, this emphasis on the non-applied purpose of research is justified by the commonplace narrative arc about the linear impact of ‘basic research’ on technology, economy and innovation. Nevertheless, the contents of the narrative arc are seldom supported by the interviewees’ or the authors’ direct experience in delivering these impacts. When the staff-members of CERN were asked to reflect on their policy-related practices at CERN, they tended to disagree with particle physicists about the efficiency and productivity of the non-applied purpose of research for delivering impacts. In other words, the linear impact of particle and high-energy physics research is more of a strategic representation of the research community than a common reflection of the community members on their practices and experiences. I suggest that the findings of this thesis can provide an alternative perspective on the dilemma of evaluating particle physics research as well as other curiosity-driven research. Based on the constructivist account, I regard value as more than an objectively evaluated economic variable. That is to say, value results from continuous social interactions and can therefore be studied as discourse and action. In the context of this thesis in particular, I have found that pragmatic policy expectations have become a space that the curiosity-driven particle and high-energy physics community tend to practise and discourse on when responding to questions about the value of its research. To date, there has been no systematic evaluation of the curiosity-driven research community’s discursive response to policy agendas on impact and social responsibility. Therefore, the findings of this thesis—that the discursive arrangement of the particle physics community prioritises its community’s epistemic values over the public interest when communicating outward—addresses a gap in the Science Policy Studies and Science and Technology Studies literature.