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Big Science January 15, 2009

Posted by Sarah in science.
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In the New York Times this week, biologist Aaron Hirsh wrote  a very interesting column on the idea of Big Science. He argues that the most successful scientists of the 21st century so far are administrators – those who are good at herding people and resources. He pinpoints a shift in the way science is actually being done:

Across many different fields, new data are generated by a smaller and smaller number of bigger and bigger projects. And with this process of centralization come changes in what scientists measure — and even in what scientists are.

This idea of centralisation is of course not new. Particularly in experimental particle physics, large collider projects such as CERN have long been the norm, and papers written by one or just a few authors are virtually unheard of. While in some fields the increasing centralisation is unavoidable and essential for continuing progress, this way of working has drawbacks.

There’s something disturbingly hierarchical about the new architecture of the scientific community: what was before something like a network of small villages is today more like an urban high-rise, with big offices at the top and a lot of cubicles down below.

Thus, as a student, it can be scary and intimidating to look up against this enormous high-rise, where only the people at the top levels can really make an impact on the science outcome. It must be quite demoralising at the bottom, particularly if you rpersonal vision doesn’t align with those in “the glass office”.

I loved Bill Bryson’s book A Short History of Nearly Everything. By focusing on the scientists as people, by showing their personalities, quirks, and passions, Bryson really brought the scientific process to life. And with this, I think he hit the nail on the head for how to engage people in science. When science is institutionalised, rather than personal, that aspect is lost. It becomes harder for non-scientists to relate (and give money).

I first started thinking about this when I saw a senior astronomer talk about changing paradigms in astronomy. For a long time, he argued, astronomy was a science ideally suited for individual glory. After all, what more does an astronomer need than a telescope, a notebook and some warm clothes? But a new generation of observatories, like the European Extremely Large Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope and the Square Kilometer Array will cause this to change, and large observing programmes will increasingly replace the short programmes by small teams.

And this is not all bad, as great science will come from it!

But the scope for creativity in this setup is far more limited, and the bright young things are more likely to be talented data miners than inspired observers.

Hirsh rightly picks up on a relatively new trend that re-engages a wider audience: Citizen Science. Astronomy has a hugely successful citizen science project, called Galaxy Zoo, where anyone with a keen eye and an internet connection can help classify galaxies according to their shape in a vast amount of images – a task that is notoriously hard to automate well with computer programming. I hope more citizen science projects emerge in the next few years, as they will help the scientists at the top engage with those at the bottom. And as long as tax payers fund science they cannot be left out.



1. gfish - January 15, 2009

“…and the bright young things are more likely to be talented data miners than inspired observers.”

That kind of scares me. After years and years of working in business where creativity was being beaten out of the rank and file as something to be best left to the executives, I’m very suspicious of any development where data crunching take a front seat to ideas and creative thought.

After all, those bright young things will advance to the top of the high rise and if crunching data is what they do best, how do you expect them to switch to creative thinking and big picture planning when you didn’t let them learn how to do it in their formative years?

When people who are told not to be creative and just log the data rise to the top, the results are usually not very good. Stagnation and inflexibility often calcify the organizations they now head which means that great science and good projects get passed over because the people at the top have no vision.

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