What does success look like in big science?

A quick one, following the announcement of the Nobel Physics prize, which has gone Adam Riess, Brian Schmidt and Saul Perlmutter for their work on the expansion of the universe. These men sit in astrophysics, which is the world of big science. Their work is massively collaborative, it relies on people from all round the world and massive instruments. My old boss Martin Rees, who has a gift for saying wise things at the right times, points out in a statement…

…that this is one of the increasingly frequent instances when the Nobel Committee is damagingly constrained by its tradition that a prize can’t be shared between more than three individuals. The key papers recognised by this award were authored by two groups, each containing a dozen or so scientists. It would have been fairer, and would send a less distorted message about how this kind of science is actually done, if the award had been made collectively to all members of the two groups.

This question will carry on increasing in volume. A few months back, I was at a conference on Big Biology. Big Science has, since the war, largely been a physics thing. But biology has more recently got in on the act. The Human genome project is the most conspicuous effort by biologists to accelerate science with economies of scale. There will be many more. As James Gleick and others have described (my review here), science is generating vast amounts of data, and big data is becoming its own big science. But, as science embiggens, what does success look like? And how should we reward it?

Big science is a long way away from the lightbulbs-and-breakthroughs story of science that emphasises individual genius. It is as much about organisation, engineering and relatively mundane scientific work. I am conscious that I don’t know nearly enough abou this, but my suggestion at the conference was that, in a world in which National Academies and Nobels still reward individual excellence, big science projects sit as a monument to this model. I would suggest that The Human Genome Project cemented the ideas of Crick, Watson, Franklin, Sulston and others. But it is not clear how it would produce another one of them. Maybe big science is something that scientists do once they have made a name for themselves? This is not necessarily good or bad. We just need to find new ways to recognise and reward achievements.

 

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About Jack Stilgoe

Jack Stilgoe is a lecturer in science policy at the department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London.
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