Archive for Big Science

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

Posted in Finance, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on June 2, 2015 by telescoper

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.


Astronomy’s Next Big Thing

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on June 12, 2012 by telescoper

I woke up this morning to hear an item about astronomy on the 7 o’clock news on BBC Radio 3. That doesn’t happen very often so I thought I’d follow it up with a short post before I head off to work.

The news item I heard followed up an announcement yesterday that the governing Council of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) had  approved the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) programme – which is to produce what will be the world’s largest ground-based optical telescope. Extremely Large is putting in mildly, of course. Its main mirror will be a colossal 39 metres in diameter (with a collecting area of almost a thousand square metres) and will have to made in bits with a sophisticated adaptive optics system to ensure that it can counter the effects of the Earth’s atmosphere and the limitations  of its own structure to  reach a phenomenal angular resolution of 0.001 arc seconds.

For more details on the telescope, see the official website here or the wikipedia article here, where you can also read more about the science to be done with E-ELT.

This telescope has been in planning for many years, of course. In fact, it began as an even more ambitious concept, a 100-metre diameter monster which I used to call the FLT. Over the years, however, for a mixture of technical and financial reasons, this was progressively de-scoped.

Yesterday’s announcement doesn’t mean that work will start immediately on building the E-ELT. That won’t happen until sufficient funding is secured and in the case of some countries, governmental approval obtained. Recent decisions by the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council to close down telescopes in Hawaii clearly anticipated the need to make some headroom in future budgets to enable this to happen. The best-case scenario is probably for E-ELT to take a decade or so to complete.

Of course the concentration of funding in ever and ever larger international facilities – such as E-ELT and the Square Kilometre Array – does create tensions within the UK astronomical community. Many scientists do excellent work with relatively small facilities, including those about to be closed down to make room for E-ELT. In the near future, the only ground-based optical facilities to which UK astronomers will have access will be operated by the European Southern Observatory. With fewer but larger (and more expensive) facilities operated by international agencies carrying out projects run by vast consortia, observational astronomy is definitely going the way of particle physics…

The problem  comes when the Next Big Thing  is too big to be built.  We might have already seen X-ray astronomy bubble burst in this way. To quote my learned friend Andy Lawrence:

Fundamentally, the problem is that X-ray astronomy has hit the funding wall. Everything gets inexorably bigger and more ambitious. Eventually its all or nothing… so when the answer is nothing … ah.

What will come after the Large Hadron Collider, or the E-ELT?  Is Big Science about to get too big?