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.