Big Science is not the Problem – it’s Top-Down Management of Research

I’m very late to this because I was away at the weekend, but I couldn’t resist making a comment on a piece that appeared in the Grauniad last week entitled How can we stop big science hovering up all the research funding? That piece argues for a new system of allocating research funding to avoid all the available cash being swallowed by a few big projects. This is an argument that’s been rehearsed many times before in the context of physics and astronomy, the costs of the UK contribution to facilities such as CERN (home of the Large Hadron Collider) and the European Southern Observatory being major parts of the budget of the Science and Technology Facilities Council that often threaten to squeeze the funds available for “exploiting” these facilities – in other words for doing science. What’s different about the Guardian article however is that it focusses on genomics, which has only recently threatened to become a Big Science.

Anyway, Jon Butterworth has responded with a nice piece of his own (also in the Guardian) with which I agree quite strongly. I would however like to make a couple of comments.

First of all, I think there are two different usages of the phrase “Big Science” and we should be careful not to conflate them. The first, which particularly applies in astronomy and particle physics, is that the only way to do research in these subjects is with enormous and generally very expensive pieces of kit. For this reason, and in order to share the cost in a reasonable manner, these fields tend to be dominated by large international collaborations. While it is indeed true that the Large Hadron Collider has cost a lot of money, that money has been spent by a large number of countries over a very long time. Moreover, particle physicists argued for that way of working and collectively made it a reality. The same thing happens in astronomy: the next generation of large telescopes are all transnational affairs.

The other side of the “Big Science” coin is quite a different thing. It relates to attempts to impose a top-down organization on science when that has nothing to do with the needs of the scientific research. In other words, making scientists in big research centres when it doesn’t need to be done like that. Here I am much more sceptical of the value. All the evidence from, e.g., the Research Excellence Framework is that there is a huge amount of top-class research going on in small groups here and there, much of it extremely innovative and imaginative. It’s very hard to justify concentrating everything in huge centres that are only Big because they’ve taken killed everything that’s Small, by concentrating resources to satisfy some management fixation rather than based on the quality of the research being done. I have seen far too many attempts by funding councils, especially the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, to direct funding from the top down which, in most cases, is simply not the best way to deliver compelling science. Directed programmes rarely deliver exciting science, partly because the people directing them are not the people who actually know most about the field.

I am a fan of the first kind of Big Science, and not only for scientific reasons. I like the way it encourages us to think beyond the petty limitations of national politics, which is something that humanity desparately needs to get used to. But while Big Science can be good, forcing other science to work in Big institutes won’t necessarily make it better. In fact it could have the opposite effect, stifling the innovative approaches so often found in small groups. Small can be beautiful too.

Finally, I’d have to say that I found the Guardian article that started this piece of to be a bit mean-spirited. Scientists should be standing together not just to defend but to advance scientific research across all the disciplines rather than trying to set different kinds of researchers against each other. I feel the same way about funding the arts, actually. I’m all for more science funding, but don’t want to see the arts to be killed off to pay for it.

7 Responses to “Big Science is not the Problem – it’s Top-Down Management of Research”

  1. I agree with your concern about top-down direction of exploitation (and even development) funding.

    (note: the ESO subscription really doesn’t compare to CERN in STFC’s budget, its more comparable to ILL).

  2. Phillip Helbig Says:

    Whether or not one thinks that such big projects are good, I’ve always been confused by the argument “Scientific projects have become too big for any one country, so the only way forward is collaboration in large international projects”. So, one has a 10 per cent stake in project A, a ten per cent stake in project B, and so on, and a few of these take up a large percentage of the budget. But, instead of 1/10 of ten projects, one could also do one big project. So, yes, too big for one country as long as that country is a partner in several international projects. My guess is that a single-country big project could be run with less overhead and perhaps thus provide more value for money.

    There might be reasons for not doing this, of course. For example, it would mean putting all of the country’s eggs in one basket. It would also leave out a large fraction of the community. It would make international collaboration more difficult. On the whole, it might not be a good idea, but surely one can come up with some better reasons than “it is too big for one country to finance”.

    • telescoper Says:

      It’s not just the money, it’s that the expertise is not concentrated in one place either, and neither is necessarily where you want to build the facility…

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        Yes, a valid argument, but how often is it used? The justification is always “this is too big for any one country, so international collaboration is the only possibility”.

  3. Bryn Jones Says:

    I agree with Jon Butterworth’s point that many “big science” projects are really the provision of generic facilities for diverse projects. So ESO, the HST, ALMA and many others are facilities that will be used for tens of thousands of individual projects. They enable diverse research.

    Astronomical examples of monolithic big science projects, on the other hand, include space missions to study particular objects or phenomena. These can often transform fields, perhaps justifying the enormous expense. Sometimes they can seem a bit incremental. Can we think of expensive space missions that did not transform fields?

    It looks to me that there has been a mismatch in the UK between funding for capital projects and the recurrent funds needed to exploit them, which Peter mentioned. This is often driven by the enthusiasms of politicians. Gordon Brown attempted to invest in new science infrastructure, which was very welcome, but I did not see an equivalent investment in recurrent spending to exploit those facilities. George Osborne has similarly announced funding for some glamorous major projects, but recurrent spending is being squeezed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: