The Debate Between "Big Science" and "Small Science"

views updated

The Debate Between "Big Science" and "Small Science"


As the twentieth century began, scientists became increasingly aware of fundamental new forces and scientific phenomena that were observed fleetingly, if at all, but that were required by emerging theories. This sparked interest in scientific apparatus to investigate the nature of the atom, the structure of the universe, and more. This quest for more detailed knowledge continues, but the questions are growing larger, requiring increasingly expensive equipment to address. However, the vast majority of scientists work on relatively small projects, and most of scientific research takes place in relatively small laboratories with relatively small budgets. These small budgets are often threatened when huge scientific projects threaten to cut funding for other, less visible projects. This, in turn, has led to the tension that often exists between "big science" and "small science."


One of the first large science projects was the construction of the 100 inch (2.5 meter) Mount Wilson Observatory's telescope in California. This telescope was designed to probe the universe and, for nearly 40 years, remained the largest and most powerful telescope in the world. Mount Wilson was superseded by the 200 inch (five meter) Hale telescope in 1948 but, by then, the Manhattan Project had forever changed the way that large scientific projects would be tackled.

During this time, many other fields of scientific endeavor grew to demand increasingly large expenditures because, as our knowledge of the sciences grew, the questions to be answered became ever more intractable. For example, early research into atomic structure was performed on a cyclotron that could fit on a small kitchen table. This provided ample energy for the atomic structure research done in the 1930s. Direct descendents of this device include the 27 km-circumference (17 miles) CERN accelerator and the 53 km-circumference (33 miles) Superconducting Supercollider (SSC), the latter of which failed to receive funding and was cancelled. By another measure of comparison, the first cyclotron could accelerate particles to an energy of nearly 100,000 electron volts, while several accelerators today reach energies of over one trillion volts on a routine basis. Other areas of science have seen similar increases in required funding as the price of continuing advancement grows. The Hubble Space Telescope cost over $1 billion, several interplanetary probes (Galileo, Cassini, Mars Observer, for example) have cost over $1 billion, and the Human Genome Project will cost several billion dollars when completed.

While huge scientific projects are becoming necessary, small science is flourishing as a result of breakthroughs in engineering, computer power, and scientific understanding. For example, sequencing a gene used to take years of laborious work by a laboratory full of people. This same job can now be performed automatically by any of a number of labs for a very small cost. Similarly, it is now possible to construct a "poor man's supercomputer" for a few tens of thousands of dollars, simply by networking a dozen or so desktop computers to give the same performance as a 1990-vintage Cray supercomputer costing several million dollars.

Thus, we are led to an apparently growing dichotomy between a relatively small number of high-energy physicists, astronomers, and geneticists whose work on some of the fundamental concepts of the universe and life require ever-increasing sums of money, while the great majority of scientists, many of them doing less glamorous but no less necessary follow-on work, are starved for funding. In science, as in most other human endeavors, it is the follow-on research that helps determine the validity and eventual utility of major breakthroughs. On the one hand, we run the risk of being unable to capitalize on scientific discoveries if small science is neglected in favor of large projects, but, on the other hand, without the large projects, there will be no new scientific territory to explore and exploit.

Of course, the issue of national pride enters into the mix. Many nations, the United States included, are willing to spend vast amounts of money to build the newest, most powerful, or most advanced piece of scientific equipment in the world. However, they fail to see the rationale behind funding the thousands of scientists laboring to fill in the blanks, confirm the results, and to do the other work necessary to make sense of the findings of large projects. This has led many scientists to feel that there is an impending crisis in the sciences.


Large science projects have captured the public's attention for decades, and continue to do so. Photos from the Hubble Space Telescope and probes to the outer Solar System appear on television regularly and the intricacies of subatomic physics are broadcast on network news shows when a new particle is discovered or created in the laboratory. The creation of new chemical elements receives similar attention, and the sequencing of additional chromosomes or genomes is often front-page news. There is no doubt that large science projects such as these are a major factor behind the public's interest in science, and that interest is one large factor that keeps science funding alive in the United States and many other nations.

If huge science projects are exciting, promote public interest in science, and add to national pride, there is also no doubt that they are necessary. For example, in the realm of atomic physics, scientists have simply looked at just about every process that can be examined at relatively low energies. All of the predicted particles that exist at current accelerator energies have been found and the only way to move on is to construct larger accelerators that cost billions of dollars. By this reasoning, spending a few billion dollars now may take funds away from smaller science for the next decade as a new accelerator is built. However, the new machine will then make possible the next decade's worth of work for the smaller scientists, with the funds generated by public interest supporting their work.

A similar argument was made to promote the construction and launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. Ground-based observatories, it was argued, had fundamental constraints placed on them due to atmospheric turbulence. The only way to see the universe in greater detail was to raise a telescope above the atmosphere, giving an unhindered view of all. However, shortly after Hubble was launched, advances in what is known as adaptive optics (ironically made possible by yet another massive project, the Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars") made it possible for much larger ground-based telescopes to achieve the same resolution as Hubble with greater light-gathering capability and at a fraction of the cost. There are still many things Hubble can do that current ground-based telescopes cannot, but the fundamental premise behind building and launching Hubble was overtaken by events that were unforeseen when Hubble was first designed and funded.

It is also important to note that, in spite of the positive publicity engendered by successful large science projects, public opinion cannot always be counted on and a reversal of public opinion is often only a headline away. For example, cost overruns caused the cancellation of the Superconducting Supercollider when partially completed. Negative publicity surrounding the flaws in Hubble's main mirror tarnished NASA's image, even though Hubble remained perfectly capable of performing over 70 percent of its original science objectives. Public opinion of NASA was further diminished when the Mars Observer was lost and the high-gain antenna on Galileo failed to open, hampering the probe's ability to relay data to the Earth. Large projects tend to be hyped by their promoters in order to attract funding approval; when results fail to live up to initial promises, or when the public tires of it, the backlash can be devastating. This diminution of public confidence can carry over to science in general, leading to a general reluctance to spend money for any scientific research that is not of immediate and obvious utility.

Small science, by comparison, is neither as widely appealing nor as likely to arouse public disdain or distrust. Most people view smaller science projects as doing little more than filling in the gaps between landmark, important discoveries made by "big science." However, in spite of the romance of working on a huge project that is on the cutting edge of science and technology, it must be remembered that the laser, the polymerase chain reaction, discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation field, plate tectonics, discovery of the asteroid impact that ended the Cretaceous Period, unraveling the structure of DNA, and other major advances in scientific understanding came as the result of "small" scientific projects.

The great majority of scientists are never going to announce a breakthrough in understanding that rivals plate tectonics or DNA. Nonetheless, their contributions are important and there is no way to tell in advance which avenues of inquiry may someday prove valuable. For this reason, advocates of small science fear the increasing tendency towards large, expensive projects that often threaten to pauperize national and international science funding. For example, a typical scientist with a modest laboratory and one or two assistants can operate for a year on about $200,000-$300,000. This may seem a large amount, but when one considers that it includes two salaries, rent for laboratory space (which is often leased to researchers by universities), supplies, travel to conferences, other necessary expenses, and university overhead (which can run to 60 percent of the total budget), it is apparent that even a budget of $300,000 annually is not much to run a lab on.

By comparison, if we assume that Hubble cost $1.5 billion, it seems that the costs of building and launching Hubble could completely support 5,000 "small" scientists with annual budgets of $300,000 each. Therefore, unless large science projects such as Hubble are funded from a new and completely separate source of financial backing, every large project drains the collective "pot" of science funding and can have a dramatic impact on scientific research as a whole. This is the concern of small science advocates—that the returns from gargantuan projects, while important to furthering our understanding, are not sufficiently dramatic to offset the loss of funding and scientists that result. And so, the debate continues.


Further Reading

Chaisson, Eric J. The Hubble Wars: Astrophysics Meets Astropolitics in the Two-Billion-Dollar Struggle Over the Hubble Space Telescope. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Lederman, Leon. The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question? Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.

Taubes, Gary. Nobel Dreams. New York: Random House, 1986.

About this article

The Debate Between "Big Science" and "Small Science"

Updated About content Print Article


The Debate Between "Big Science" and "Small Science"