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.Follow @telescoper