Trickle Down Science

A week or so ago, lots of people were linking to this New York Review of Books article by Steven Weinberg on “The Crisis of Big Science,” looking back over the last few decades of, well, big science. It’s somewhat dejected survey of whopping huge experiments, and the increasing difficulty of getting them funded, including a good deal of bitterness over the cancellation of the Superconducting Supercollider almost twenty years ago. This isn’t particularly new for Weinberg– back at the APS’s Centennial Meeting in Atlanta in 1999, he gave a big lecture where he spent a bunch of time fulminating about what idiots politicians were for cancelling the project. If anything, the last decade and a bit has mellowed him somewhat.

Sort of in parallel with this, I’ve also been reading Neil deGrasse Tyson’s latest book, Space Chronicles (I say “sort of” because I actually stopped reading it for a couple of weeks, because I found it maddening for reasons that I may go into in another post). This is a collection of things from other sources that collectively sort of advances the argument that we need to spend flipping great wodges of cash on space exploration, for the good of science and society as a whole.

While these aren’t directly related to each other– and, indeed, are somewhat in conflict, as Weinberg has no use for manned space flight– they’re both making a similar argument: that we should be spending money on Big Science projects, because they’re important for science as a whole. Which is fine, to a point– I’m all in favor of increasing the amount of money we spend on scientific research– but I can’t help thinking that it’s awfully easy to make this argument when the Big Science projects just happen to fall very close to your area of interest.

Weinberg’s piece is more of a historical survey, so most of the advocacy is implicit. Tyson is more direct, and includes this jaw-dropping statement at the end of one of the pieces collected in his book, after talking about how image-processing techniques used to correct the flawed Hubble optics were adapted to medical imaging:

So why not ask investigators to take direct aim at the challenge of detecting breast cancer? Why should innovations in medicine have to wait for a Hubble-sized blunder in space? My answer may not be politically correct, but it’s the truth: when you organize extraordinary missions, you attract people of extraordinary talent who might not have been inspired by or attracted to the goal of saving the world from cancer or hunger or pestilence.

I’m a physicist by training, and thus know a thing or two about arrogance, but this is just breathtaking. And I suppose serves as another demonstration of a law of discourse as inescapable as the laws of physics: that any reference to “politically correct” ideas will soon be followed by something asinine.

There’s a somewhat more reasonable version of the same basic argument a little later on:

Let’s say you’re a thermodynamicist, the world’s expert on heat, and I ask you to build me a better oven. You might invent a convection oven, or an oven that’s more insulated or that permits easier access to its contents. But no matter how much money I give you, you will not invent a microwave oven. Because that came from another place. It came from investments in communications, in radar. The microwave oven is traceable to the war effort, not to a thermodynamicist.

That’s the kind of cross-pollination that goes on all the time.

Again, this is a nice argument for funding science in general. But really, it’s an argument for funding a wide range of different areas of research, not an argument for funding space travel per se, or any other kind of Big Science project. I suppose you could use this to argue that the space program is particularly useful in that it brings people from multiple different fields together to work on a single larger project, but by that logic, the best thing for scientific progress would be to start a war with Germany and Japan– the payoff from wartime operations like the Manhattan Project and research into radar, and aircraft design, and all the rest is vastly greater than anything that can be traced to the space program. For that matter, it probably ought to include all the advances claimed for the space program, given that the space program got its start with wartime research.

To make the argument specific to Big Science requires some bafflegab about how “inspiring” big projects are– in Tyson’s case, he writes glowingly about the uplifting effect of the Apollo program; in the high-energy case, Weinberg and others speak grandly about the pursuit of the most fundamental laws of nature. These lofty goals are supposed to inspire huge numbers of young people to want to be part of those pursuits. That way, our best and brightest will be motivated by the grand challenges, and flock to careers in math and science, to the benefit of us all.

Which is great when you’re in one of the fields that’s meant to serve as the grand and inspirational challenge. For the rest of us, though, this is trickle-down science: the best and the brightest get fired up to be rocket scientists, or high-energy particle physicists, and those who aren’t quite the best or the brightest, well… they can study condensed matter physics, or something less inspirational. They’ll still be an upgrade over the riff-raff who are presumably populating those fields now. You know, the ones motivated by wanting to save the world from cancer, or hunger, or pestilence.

Not only is this kind of insulting to those of us who have chosen to make careers in fields that aren’t driven by Big Science, it’s not remotely sustainable. If getting people to go into science and engineering is dependent on something as ephemeral as “inspiration,” we’re forever going to be careening from boom to bust. Once we land humans on Mars, how do we inspire the next generation? Once we merge the Standard Model with general relativity, do the last string theorists leaving the party just turn out the lights and declare physics closed?

A sustainable solution to the supply of scientists and engineers can’t be built around lightning-in-a-bottle scenarios like the Apollo era space race, where an exceptional combination of military goals and national pride happened to align with science for a time, spurring great progress. It’s great if it happens, but as David Kaiser documents in How the Hippies Saved Physics, it had a cost for the generation of physicists who were coming along just as the national security establishment started to lose interest. It looks a little like the same sort of thing might be happening in the life sciences, where a huge influx of cash into the NIH drove unsustainable growth for a while, and the flattening out of those budgets is creating a big problem for young researchers.

Those kind of events are great when they happen, but they can’t be relied upon for a steady supply of, well, anything. Grand challenges are inspirational for a while, but when you solve the target problem, or even hit a particularly rough patch that delays progress for a while, well, they stop being quite so inspiring. We don’t stop needing scientists and engineers just because high-energy physics is having trouble locating physics beyond the Standard Model.

If we want security for science, not just a sequence of spikes and crashes, we need to build a broad base. We need to teach people that there are interesting things in science beyond astrophysics and particle physics. We need a generation of science students who go into condensed matter physics because it’s genuinely interesting in its own right, and not because they were inspired by particle physics but couldn’t hack the math.

Because while throwing $20 billion to make a Gigantic Hadron Collider, or a Sagan Space Telescope might get you a few spin-off benefits that make life better for people, if you want bang for your buck, you’d be better off giving $20 million to a thousand different research groups in a wide range of relevant subjects. If you want to encourage cross-pollination, throw a few bucks into open access publishing and interdisciplinary conferences to get people talking. There are real payoffs to NASA’s research efforts, but the payoffs from research funded by the National Science Foundation are at least as big, for far less money invested.

Which is not to say that I’m opposed to the idea of Big Science projects– I think we should do both. Contrary to the absurd claims of our more reactionary political elements, we have ample resources as a society to do grand and ambitious projects, and we ought to be funding those along with a broad range of smaller projects in less abstract fields. What I object to is the idea that Big Science projects are the be-all and end-all of science, and that we ought to structure our whole science policy around them, and wait for the benefits to trickle down to the smaller sciences.

While the inspiration of the space program or the heyday of experimental high-energy physics certainly produced some high points, the current slump is just as much a product of the inspiration-based model as any of the great achievements. Trying to extend this for another generation with some grand new project in the same mold is going to end up in exactly the same place thirty years down the road.

Comments

  1. #1 RM
    May 2, 2012

    One thing to keep in mind about Tyson, one thing that probably colors his perspective, is that he’s a director of a planetarium, not a university professor. When he talks about things like “inspiring the next generation of scientists”, he’s not talking about reaching undergrads, he’s talking about teenagers and ten-year-olds. While I agree that condensed matter physics can be interesting in its own right, it’s not something that typically grabs the attention of pre-teens. Maybe an eight-year-old Pip will say “I want to study the temperature dependance in the modulus of elasticity for super-critical fluids when I grow up!”, but my guess is that he’s much more likely to go “I want to be an astronaut when I grow up!”

    That doesn’t mean that the space program gets the best and brightest and everyone else gets the leftovers. As kids grow up, they get more sophisticated and more aware of their niche interests. If you take a look at the scientists who wanted to be astronauts as grade-schoolers, I’m guessing “I couldn’t hack it” only applies to a minority of them, and “I found this other thing which I thought was cooler” is much more prevalent. The want-to-be-an-astronaut isn’t really being promoted because we want the best-and-brightest to be astronauts, it’s being promoted because it’s a gateway career aspiration and gets kids interested enough in science that they learn about their latent interest in super-critical fluids, rather than being swayed by the want-to-be-a-(movie star/pro athlete) career path and washing out as a waitress/used car salesman.

    That said, you raise a good point that pinning everything on the next great challenge suffers when we actually reach that challenge, and have to cast about for the next one. My guess is that Tyson is one who’d argue that there will always be another frontier, always another hill on the horizon to climb.

  2. #2 Winchell Chung
    May 2, 2012

    Some of what you say haunts me from my past reading. You will probably be amused to know that some of what you say about Big Science was mentioned in an ancient science fiction novel called They Shall Have Stars (aka Year 2018!) by James Blish (1956), one of the “Cities in Flight” series.

    The novel is based on the discredited theories of Oswald Spengler, who maintained that all civilizations go through certain stages in their life cycle. In the novel, Earth was in the final stage. Science had a tendency for giganticism, with huge expensive experiments. Which reminds me of the Big Science you speak out against in your essay. The characters in the novel also complain that “the scientific method does not seem to work anymore.”

    Your solution reminds me of another novel, Time for the Stars by Robert Heinlein (1956). In that novel, there exists the so-called Long Range Foundation, that funds expensive, long-term projects for the benefit of mankind that nobody else will touch. It wasn’t enough for a proposed project to be interesting to science or socially desirable; it also had to be so horribly expensive that no one else would touch it and the prospective results had to lie so far in the future that it could not be justified to taxpayers or shareholders.

    It was supposed to be a non-profit organization, but in the novel such research often pays off very profitably. It also reminds me of Bell Labs, who invented such things as the transistor and the laser.

  3. #3 CCPhysicist
    May 2, 2012

    You are 100% correct about the bubble in life-science research funded by the NIH. Most of the symptoms of 1970 physics are there, particularly the ratio of grad students and post docs to PIs. When you have a system that is essentially a pyramid built on exponential funding growth, even a flattening is a disaster.

  4. #4 MJ
    May 2, 2012

    I brought this up when I came across the Weinberg article – we (as a society) still are funding “big science,” just not necessarily in the HEP domain. Here in the US, there have been a couple of major national user facilities which came online recently or are being built (the Spallation Neutron Source at Oak Ridge, the FEL facility at SLAC, and the next-generation successor to the National Synchrotron Light Source at Brookhaven). Over in Europe, the Diamond Light Source in the UK first started producing beams a few years back, and the European Spallation Source is in the planning stage and construction is due to start next year (last I checked).

    Of course, this isn’t to say that we can’t or shouldn’t do both. I have a feeling that building something with a broad user base with a diverse range of research is an easier sell in today’s environment.

  5. #5 Tevong
    May 2, 2012

    Chad I think the important point Weinberg, Tyson and you are making, that i’m sure all scientists will agree on, is to fund science with the goal of generating knowledge for knowledge’s sake and not based solely on immediate economic impact. This is obvious to anyone with a basic history of science understanding.

    Your issue seems to mainly be Tyson arguing that big science is somehow more important than other sciences. I think it’s unfair to lump Weinberg into this as unlike Tyson i don’t think he is being condescending to the other sciences. He is simply arguing for the need to keep funding big particle physics experiments using the same reasons mentioned previously that you all agree on, while appealing to the importance of the field and the search for the fundamental laws. It’s no different to what a condensed matter physicist would write for his own field when arguing the need to fund it.

    Where you might misinterpret his intentions are when he claims a special place for particle physics as being at the most fundamental level of science, which is really a tautology but can be misread as arrogance, and the problem specific to big science as being something that doesn’t really scale (you can’t build half an accelerator ring with half the funding…) so it’s all or nothing.

    At the end of the day Tyson and Weinberg are just passionate about their field and trying to explain the benefits both spiritually and practically, just like any scientist would. Your annoyance seems to stem from when that claim of the practical benefits extends to a trickle-down effect to “lesser” sciences, which might be the case with Tyson but i don’t think Weinberg is guilty of that. He’s justifying his own field like any scientist in any other field would justify his.

  6. #6 Alexander Woo
    May 3, 2012

    I feel like your argument should now be repeated and used to argue for funding for all scholarly activities and not just science.

  7. #7 MRW
    May 3, 2012

    I think RM has a point – it’s not just the wash-outs, it’s the people for whom big science was a gateway drug that would hopefully populate the other fields – but all in all I agree with Chad. The more I hear from Tyson, the more I arrogant I think he is about his chosen field.

  8. #8 Chad Orzel
    May 3, 2012

    As kids grow up, they get more sophisticated and more aware of their niche interests. If you take a look at the scientists who wanted to be astronauts as grade-schoolers, I’m guessing “I couldn’t hack it” only applies to a minority of them, and “I found this other thing which I thought was cooler” is much more prevalent. The want-to-be-an-astronaut isn’t really being promoted because we want the best-and-brightest to be astronauts, it’s being promoted because it’s a gateway career aspiration and gets kids interested enough in science that they learn about their latent interest in super-critical fluids, rather than being swayed by the want-to-be-a-(movie star/pro athlete) career path and washing out as a waitress/used car salesman.

    Sure, but my problem is the implication that this is the only, or even the single best way to get kids fired up about science. Because it’s not–to take another really obvious example from the same museum where Tyson works, dinosaurs are pretty frickin’ awesome, too. SteelyKid has a book that’s just an alphabetical collection of 26 dinosaur species, and for a few weeks, I had to read it to her every night. One night when Kate took bedtime, SteelyKid was correcting her pronunciation of the species names.

    So, it bugs me when Tyson claims that space is the be-all and end-all of science outreach– that the people who get fired up about space are just so awesome that they blow away those motivated by Earthly concerns. It’s absolutely true that space is an easy way to hook people into reading and thinking about science– you slap a Hubble photo on something, and people will want to look at it. But that doesn’t mean that the only thing we should push at people is space stuff, it just means that we need to work harder when trying to promote other sciences.

    Your issue seems to mainly be Tyson arguing that big science is somehow more important than other sciences. I think it’s unfair to lump Weinberg into this as unlike Tyson i don’t think he is being condescending to the other sciences. He is simply arguing for the need to keep funding big particle physics experiments using the same reasons mentioned previously that you all agree on, while appealing to the importance of the field and the search for the fundamental laws. It’s no different to what a condensed matter physicist would write for his own field when arguing the need to fund it.

    I will admit I’m extrapolating a bit from what’s in that specific Weinberg article, but as I said in the post, I’ve heard him talk about this stuff before. My impression from those other times is that he really does think that the sciences can be divided into high-energy physics and stamp collecting.

    I feel like your argument should now be repeated and used to argue for funding for all scholarly activities and not just science.

    Absolutely.
    Despite all the hand-wringing about the current state of the world economy, we are the richest and most prosperous civilization the world has ever seen. The notion that we don’t have the resources to adequately fund the production of knowledge in any area– science, engineering, the arts– is just ludicrous. As Tyson points out over and over again, NASA’s budget is less than a penny out of every tax dollar– that’s within the rounding error of any discussion of the budget as a whole.

  9. #9 MRW
    May 3, 2012

    I also have to say I’ve never found Tyson’s argument that we don’t give NASA enough money because it’s “only” 0.4% of the budget very convincing. A lot of valuable things are less than 1% of the budget, because there are a lot of things in the budget. To paraphrase Tyson, 20 billion here, 20 billion there, it starts to add up.

  10. #10 Eric Lund
    May 3, 2012

    Despite all the hand-wringing about the current state of the world economy, we are the richest and most prosperous civilization the world has ever seen. The notion that we don’t have the resources to adequately fund the production of knowledge in any area– science, engineering, the arts– is just ludicrous. As Tyson points out over and over again, NASA’s budget is less than a penny out of every tax dollar– that’s within the rounding error of any discussion of the budget as a whole.

    These arguments are not new arguments, either. Heinlein testified before Congress in the late 1970s and made essentially the same points. (His version of his testimony was published in an anthology of some of his stories.) There was a lot of resistance to it then, as well–once the Apollo program ended, NASA’s manned program took several years to regain focus. That many of the direct beneficiaries of NASA spending (e.g., Lockheed Martin, TRW) are part of a military industrial complex that has/had recently consumed large amounts of money in poorly chosen wars (Vietnam then, Iraq more recently) is also not new. The biggest differences are that a “cut taxes at all costs” ideology has completely taken over one of our major parties since then, and the Cold War which gave the impetus to NASA exploration back then is over (though certain people, mostly in the aforementioned party, seem determined to start a new one with China and/or Saudi Arabia).

  11. #11 G Snider
    May 7, 2012

    Absolutely agree there should be a mix of the big and small science projects. I like to use the Hollywood film industry as an example; they fund medium-to-big productions, which sometimes flop but overall make a profit. If art (movies in this case) can make money, we sure as heck should expect science to think along the same lines.

    Small budget films get their funding from a multitude of sources, government grants, private donors, collected donations, personal cash etc. If a small-budget director shows promise, he/she is often given the chance to work with bigger projects (Peter Jackson), or at least more grants. Some prefer to stay small (Jim Jarmusch or Guy Maddin) and others actually do worse with more funding (think of David Lynch with his ‘Dune’). It’s a pyramid, but a stable one that satisfies a maximum of tastes and talents (big-budget films are necessarily fewer in number). And no matter how many small movies you fund (even 1000s of them), a production like “Avatar” or LOTR will never spontaneously appear from the mix; Bollywood for instance is scant on mass-appeal epics.

    Small and big budget science will forever maintain certain distinctions. Funding both means we get the benefits from both. Big science takes fewer chances but the results are less contested (the Manhattan project, for one). How much does the world ‘need’ another moon mission or Avatar film? Maybe that’s a philosophical question. I’m happy with some of each.