Begetting Big Science

Lawrence and His Laboratory: A History of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, Volume I

by J.L. Heilbron, by Robert W. Seidel
University of California Press, 586 pp., $29.95

These days, suspicion of big, federally funded scientific projects is perhaps more widespread than ever, in small part because they sometimes produce fallible technologies—spacecraft that blow up and space telescopes that don’t work—and in larger part because the enormous projects—for example, the superconducting supercollider particle accelerator, estimated to cost $8 billion—are highly expensive.

Related suspicions have recently emerged even among scientists, notably among physicists who do not worship in the high-energy collider branch of their church and among biologists who dissent from the human genome initiative. The two groups hold in common the belief that the respective projects that each opposes will divert scarce resources from more important research. The biologists, going further, have been telling the press and the Congress that the genome effort’s cost—an estimated $3 billion—will merely buy a lot of trivial science.

The supercollider, which comprises a single gargantuan installation, and the genome project, which is fostering small-scale activity in many laboratories around the country, are actually very different from each other, not only in organization but in the scale of their respective technologies and likely scientific (not to mention social) payoffs. But both are taken to represent the seduction of science by big money—whether federal or industrial—and big organization. As such, both run counter to the strain in American culture that disparages commercialism and celebrates pluralism, autonomy, individualism. That strain is as common to American science as it is to society at large. It is manifest in the continuing preference of many physicists for working in small groups and in the resistance of many academic biologists to the commercial inroads of biotechnology and in their fear of a centralized, bureaucratic control of molecular genetics in the United States.

In the 1920s Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith described some of the temptations to corruption that were—already, long before federal dollars came flooding into university research—besetting American science. Martin Arrowsmith, the hero, is an ambitious yet honest Midwesterner, an aspiring physician who discovered the high ideals and rigorous standards of pure science in the person of Max Gottlieb, a German-Jewish import to the biology faculty of the state university, who resolved to spend his life in pure biological research. Although diverted for some years into the practice of medicine and public health, with its material and social rewards, Arrowsmith eventually returns to Gottlieb and pure research by taking a position at the McGurk Institute of Biology, in New York City, a fictional version of the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research. The McGurk facilities are plush, its salaries handsome, and its staff’s obligations, at least nominally, only those of advancing basic knowledge. In reality, its administration is self-servingly concerned with the glorification of McGurk. Its leaders urge the staff to achieve quick major break-throughs, beat other research institutions to the punch, advertise the results to the press, and promulgate claims, even if unsubstantiated, for their medical efficacy. Arrowsmith is caught between the demands …

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