When big was beautiful

Nicholas Wade

  • Big Science: The Growth of Large-Scale Research edited by Peter Galison and Bruce Helvy
    Stanford, 392 pp, $45.00, April 1992, ISBN 0 8047 1879 2
  • The Code of Codes edited by Daniel Kevies and Leroy Hood
    Harvard, 397 pp, £23.95, June 1992, ISBN 0 674 13645 4

Under the Reagan Administration the United States embarked on a fistful of big science projects, from the space station to the superconducting supercollider and the human genome project. The usefulness of these ventures, by and large, lies in inverse proportion to their cost. The $30,000 million space station will serve little detectable purpose save making work for hungry defence contractors, whereas the $3000 million human genome project could one day allow the history of evolution to be read like a book. On the scale of moral worth, the $8000 million superconducting supercollider lies nearer to the human genome project, but that may not save it. The atom-smasher is designed to create energy conditions not seen in the universe since a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, but before reaching 15,000 million years back in time, it must first survive until Congress retreats for the summer. In June, with tunnelling machines already boring into the chalk beneath the plains of Waxahachie, Texas, the House of Representatives abandoned its usual support for the project and voted to kill it.

Pundits at once interpreted the vote as the death knell for the pharaonic era of big science projects. In fact, the Representatives were moved not by any such lofty judgment but by one of the mundaner forces that usually animate their voting behaviour, in this case, revenge. A Texan Representative had nearly secured passage of a resolution calling for a balanced Federal budget which, had it passed, would have gutted many pork-barrel projects and ensured the defeat of many of his colleagues at the next election. Seeing the supercollider roll past, the greasiest pork-barrel project in all Texas, his loyal colleagues just couldn’t help themselves. If resurrected by a later vote in the Senate, the supercollider will have passed its year of maximum political danger.

In fact, Congress is generally supportive of big science projects, partly for pork-barrel reasons and partly from a hazy notion that science is good for the economy. The most serious opponents are usually other scientists in the same discipline, who fear that their small-science projects will be starved as funds are diverted. It is from these lively critics that big science has acquired a far more pejorative aura in academia than the can-do image it enjoys publicly would suggest.

One of the several disappointments of Big Science is that it attempts no definition of its subject. The authors traipse haphazardly from particle accelerators to military science and even to industrial research, and the editors have made no discernible attempt to impose discipline, develop an analytic framework, or tease out coherent themes. This is a pity, since big science projects, requiring money, organisation and specialised knowledge all in high degree, are an interesting species of human endeavour.

Big science means different things to different people because the core of the notion is anything that is not little science. Little science is research done the old-fashioned way, by a single scientist following his own curiosity and free of outside direction and interference. Big science is large-scale research undertaken by massive teams of scientists and engineers, and so expensive that the patron is always a government. Big science projects tend to be characterised by a hefty degree of bureaucratic controls and direction. In addition, many have a specific goal, like reaching the Moon or finding a cure for cancer.

The first question to ask about big science, one so obvious that it eludes the editors of this book, is that of whether it works. The broad answer is that the track record of big science projects is surprisingly good, especially in comparison with other things that governments spend money on. The Apollo project to land men on the Moon fully met its technical and political goals. Whether the goals were worthwhile can be debated; the point here is that it achieved 100 per cent success, a claim that few other government programmes can make.

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