“The Crisis of Big Science” – One of Expectations?

Steven Weinberg has an article in the May 10 edition of The New York Review of Books that I recommend for everyone interested in (but not already familiar with) the history and a possible future of U.S. science and technology policy.  The ‘Big Science’ Weinberg refers to concerns big instruments.  Having played a critical role in developing the Standard Model of physics, Weinberg is most interested in particle accelerators and colliders like the Large Hadron Collider and the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) he tried to get funded and built nearly 20 years ago.

Discussing how Weinberg’s concept of ‘big science’ is now just one possible conception of such a phenomenon (big datasets and crowdsourced research are at least two possible alternatives) – that’s for another day.

He points out quite effectively that the increasing size of the next collider, or the next telescope, or the next big instrument, isn’t necessarily going to bring a corresponding bang for the investment.  As he notes, confirming pieces of a well-established model is important, but it doesn’t make the kind of noise that you find if theories have to change to meet observation.  It makes it harder to advocate for research funding.  The U.S. didn’t bite in the 1980s and 90s when the case was argued for the SSC, and now we get to go to Europe for cutting-edge particle physics.  The political context of science funding won’t make it easier for the U.S. to host the next generation of particle slayer, and Weinberg recognizes that reality.

Perhaps this motivates – at least in part – Weinberg’s preferred strategy for getting the next big collider funded.  It’s a bit of advocacy jujitsu if you’re used to the usual, and I find it refreshing.

“It seems to me that what is really needed is not more special pleading for one or another particular public good, but for all the people who care about these things to unite in restoring higher and more progressive tax rates, especially on investment income.”

Throughout the piece, Weinberg takes care to explain how he finds any funding competition to be counterproductive.  It’s way too easy to find places where funding from one area is shunted to another, and Weinberg adds to that litany the challenges of effectively managing facilities when regular funding can’t be assured.

Even with the expectation adjustment Weinberg makes over making the political and budgetary case for ‘big science,’ he struggles with the bigger challenge – how to deal with the big tools that will probably give n0t-so-big outcomes.  I think he’s right to note that international projects will likely be the only way to afford these large tools in the future.  But international scientific cooperation is not our strong suit, even when we ‘lead’ them.  We also have a nasty habit of pulling out of them when money gets tight.

The quick take away – big science is still hard – not just for the science but also for the resources you need to make it big.  We need to change our thinking, but Weinberg is likely to be a small voice in the wilderness on that point.  The conversation right now is still about the size of the budget, and avoiding the cuts.  Just like it’s always been.  The expectations challenge is not unique to ‘big science’