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Is 'Big Science' In Trouble?

A 2007 artist's conception of the James Webb Space Telescope in operation.
A 2007 artist's conception of the James Webb Space Telescope in operation.

Science is expensive, but the payoffs more than justify the costs. Let's focus here on basic science, that is, science that doesn't have the goal of being "useful" in the short run through technological or medical applications, and through generating wealth (usually for the shareholders). By basic science (and the boundary between basic and applied science is very blurry) I mean science for science's sake, the investigation of the fundamental workings of nature. How much should a country spend on basic scientific research?

In a time when balancing the United States' federal budget seems a distant dream, we have to ask if, indeed, a country is justified in spending billions of dollars on fundamental research. There are funding shortages in education, transportation infrastructure, modernization of the Internet, health care for millions of people and so on.

Of course, as well-argued by Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg in a recent essay for The New York Review of Books, the solution should never be to take money out of services that are badly needed, such as health care or public transportation, to sponsor scientific projects. However, the directive to invest in basic science should be a no brainer to any country that intends to either remain in, or climb to, a position of world leadership.

At the dawn of the 20th century, physicists were grappling with a whole new way of thinking about the world. Einstein forced people to rethink the meaning of space, time and energy, while the mysteries of the atom were redefining the laws of nature. Planck, Bohr, Einstein, Heisenberg, Schrödinger and others could never have imagined then that their revolutionary ideas about the physics of the very small would effectively redefine the world in which we live. From the insides of the atom came the quantum revolution, spawning the myriad digital applications we take for granted today, from the laptop that I am using to type this essay to our cellular phones and ultrafast fiber optic cables.

In his article, Weinberg shares his concern for the future of "big science," that is, large science projects with billion-plus-dollar budgets. The recent example of the James Webb Space Telescope, the planned successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, brings this point home. Last July, the House Appropriations Committee voted to cancel the Webb telescope altogether, citing concerns about cost increases. (What wasn't clarified is that these cost increases were the result of previously insufficient funding for the project: when choking, it's natural to grab as much air as possible to survive.) Funding has been restored, but the feeling of uncertainty about the future of the project remains.

Meanwhile, in the world of the very small, Europe has been carrying the flag for a while with the Large Hadron Collider, the giant particle accelerator in Geneva, Switzerland. No longer able to compete solo against the Europeans, U.S. scientists have joined the project, which is a de facto worldwide collaboration to push the frontiers of knowledge. However, given Europe's recent economic woes, it's not clear that the current level of funding will continue, even with U.S. support.

How can we guarantee that higher energy accelerators and more powerful telescopes will continue to be built so that the science of the very small and of the very large can move forward? (Mid-scale science is poised to continue, in spite of frequent cuts. The same with creative small-science projects.)

In my view, it is unacceptable to cut the funding for big science. A world focused exclusively on the immediate, the pragmatic and the useful is efficient, but horribly dull. Imagine a world without news of mind-boggling discoveries about the universe or the mysteries of matter; a world without the Higgs, exploding stars, colliding galaxies or giant black holes. Even worse, imagine a world without all that we still don't know, and won't be able to discover without new tools for exploration. Then there are the potential spinoffs we would miss, the unpredictable discoveries, the revolutions that won't happen.

There are different ways to address this issue. One promising avenue is a continuation of, and increase in, international collaboration. New big science projects should operate as worldwide ventures, with larger participation from new players on the economic front, such as China, India and Brazil.

When I think of a world without big science, and see that the price tag of a B-2 bomber runs at more than $1 billion, or that each of the 10 running Nimitz class aircraft carriers cost $4.5 billion to build and about $400 million per year to run, I wonder whether we are focusing our priorities on the creative or the destructive side of humanity.

When we stop investing in the new we are bound to only see the old.

You can keep up with more of what Marcelo is thinking on Facebook and Twitter.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marcelo Gleiser is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. He is the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College.

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