"A New Kind of Big Science"
Aaron E. Hirsh
research associate at the University of Colorado, Boulder
January 13th, 2009
The New York Times
But if we take a step back, and view it in the broader context of contemporary science, the grand project of particle physics seems suddenly not such a wild exception, but rather a vivid example of a very broad trend: Across many different fields, new data are generated by a smaller and smaller number of bigger and bigger projects. And with this process of centralization come changes in what scientists measure — and even in what scientists are.
In physics, a slow drift toward centralization was given a sudden shove during the Second World War — think Manhattan Project — so it is perhaps not surprising that colliders today epitomize what historians have called "Big Science." But a similar evolution is now evident in virtually every discipline.
When a crystallographer wants to determine the structure of a molecule, she signs up for time at a big synchotron, which can generate the generate the powerful X-rays she'll need. When a biologist wants the sequence of a certain genome, he submits his proposal to a large sequencing center, where armies of automated machines read their way in parallel through different paragraphs of a genome’s text. And when an ecologist wants to study the effects of all that extra CO2 in the air, she’ll turn to the very same national labs that achieve particle smashing, Brookhaven and Oak Ridge, which have built systems for manipulating the atmosphere over entire forests.It's not only scientific instruments, but also the scientists themselves who are transformed by centralization. If the 19th century was an age of far-flung investigators alone in the wilderness or the book-lined study, the 21st century is, so far, an age of scientists as administrators. Many of the best-known scientists of our day are men and women exceptionally talented in herding the resources — human and otherwise — required to plan, construct and use big sophisticated facilities.
In a way, centralization seems unavoidable. The governments that fund research have themselves become far more centralized, so perhaps science has been pulled along in the process.
But even without that prevailing wind, science would, I think, head in the very same direction.
A young discipline is bound to move first through the data it can gather most easily. And as it does, it also defines more exactly what it must measure to test its theories. As the low-hanging fruit vanish, and the most precious of fruits are spotted high above, bigger investments in harvesting equipment become necessary. Centralization is a way to extend scientists’ reach.
But of course, there are also some drawbacks. There's something disturbingly hierarchical about the new architecture of the scientific community: what was before something like a network of small villages is today more like an urban high-rise, with big offices at the top and a lot of cubicles down below.
The trouble with this is not just what it means for the folks in the cubicles, but also that the entire business should rely so heavily on the creativity and vision of relatively few managers.
If the glassy office is occupied by Einstein, that’s great, but of course there’s always a chance it won’t be. (Tellingly, this point was made to me by a friend who grew up in the Soviet Union. "Trust me," he said, "centralization is risky.")http://philosophyofscienceportal.blogsp ... thing.html
"Big science" usually implies one or more of these specific characteristics:
Big budgets: No longer required to rely on philanthropy or industry, scientists were able to use budgets on an unprecedented scale for basic research.
Big staffs: Similarly, the number of practitioners of science on any one project grew as well, creating difficulty, and often controversy, in the assignment of credit for scientific discoveries (the Nobel Prize system, for example, allows awarding only three individuals in any one topic per year, based on a 19th-century model of the scientific enterprise).
Big machines: Ernest Lawrence's cyclotron at his Radiation Laboratory in particular ushered in an era of massive machines (requiring massive staffs and budgets) as the tools of basic scientific research. The use of many machines, such as the many sequencers used during the Human Genome Project, might also fall under this definition.
Big laboratories: Because of the increase in cost to do basic science (with the increase of large machines), centralization of scientific research in large laboratories (such as Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory or CERN) has become a cost-effective strategy, though questions over facility access have become prevalent.
Towards the end of the 20th century, not only projects in basic physics and astronomy, but also in life sciences became big sciences, such as the massive Human Genome Project. The heavy investment of government and industrial interests into academic science has also blurred the line between public and private research, where entire academic departments, even at public universities, are often financed by private companies. Not all Big Science is related to the military concerns which were at its origins. Criticism
The era of Big Science has provoked criticism that it undermines the basic principles of the scientific method. Increased government funding has often meant increased military funding, which some claim subverts the Enlightenment-era ideal of science as a pure quest for knowledge. For example, historian Paul Forman has argued that during World War II and the Cold War, the massive scale of defense-related funding prompted a shift in physics from basic to applied research.
Many scientists also complain that the requirement for increased funding makes a large part of the scientific activity filling out grant requests and other budgetary bureaucratic activity, and the intense connections between academic, governmental, and industrial interests have raised the question of whether scientists can be completely objective when their research contradicts the interests and intentions of their benefactors. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Science