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The Crisis of Big Science

Science Source
Ernest Rutherford holding the apparatus he used to disintegrate a nitrogen nucleus, circa 1917

What really motivates elementary particle physicists is a sense of how the world is ordered—it is, they believe, a world governed by simple universal principles that we are capable of discovering. But not everyone feels the importance of this. During the debate over the SSC, I was on the Larry King radio show with a congressman who opposed it. He said that he wasn’t against spending on science, but that we had to set priorities. I explained that the SSC was going to help us learn the laws of nature, and I asked if that didn’t deserve a high priority. I remember every word of his answer. It was “No.”

What does motivate legislators is the immediate economic interests of their constituents. Big laboratories bring jobs and money into their neighborhood, so they attract the active support of legislators from that state, and apathy or hostility from many other members of Congress. Before the Texas site was chosen, a senator told me that at that time there were a hundred senators in favor of the SSC, but that once the site was chosen the number would drop to two. He wasn’t far wrong. We saw several members of Congress change their stand on the SSC after their states were eliminated as possible sites.

Another problem that bedeviled the SSC was competition for funds among scientists. Working scientists in all fields generally agreed that good science would be done at the SSC, but some felt that the money would be better spent on other fields of science, such as their own. It didn’t help that the SSC was opposed by the president-elect of the American Physical Society, a solid-state physicist who thought the funds for the SSC would be better used in, say, solid-state physics. I took little pleasure from the observation that none of the funds saved by canceling the SSC went to other areas of science.

All these problems will emerge again when physicists go to their governments for the next accelerator beyond the LHC. But it will be worse, because the next accelerator will probably have to be an international collaboration. We saw recently how a project to build a laboratory for the development of controlled thermonuclear power, ITER, was nearly killed by the competition between France and Japan to be the laboratory’s site.

There are things that can be done in fundamental physics without building a new generation of accelerators. We will go on looking for rare processes, like an extremely slow conjectured radioactive decay of protons. There is much to do in studying the properties of neutrinos. We get some useful information from astronomers. But I do not believe that we can make significant progress without also pushing back the frontier of high energy. So in the next decade we may see the search for the laws of nature slow to a halt, not to be resumed again in our lifetimes.

Funding is a problem for all fields of science. In the past decade, the National Science Foundation has seen the fraction of grant proposals that it can fund drop from 33 percent to 23 percent. But big science has the special problem that it can’t easily be scaled down. It does no good to build an accelerator tunnel that only goes halfway around the circle.


Astronomy has had a very different history from physics, but it has wound up with much the same problems. Astronomy became big science early, with substantial support from governments, because it was useful in a way that, until recently, physics was not.2 Astronomy was used in the ancient world for geodesy, navigation, time-keeping, and making calendars, and in the form of astrology it was imagined to be useful for predicting the future. Governments established research institutes: the Museum of Hellenistic Alexandria; the House of Wisdom of ninth-century Baghdad; the great observatory in Samarkand built in the 1420s by Ulugh Beg; Uraniborg, Tycho Brahe’s observatory, built on an island given by the king of Denmark for this purpose in 1576; the Greenwich Observatory in England; and later the US Naval Observatory.

In the nineteenth century rich private individuals began to spend generously on astronomy. The third Earl of Rosse used a huge telescope called Leviathan in his home observatory to discover that the nebulae now known as galaxies have spiral arms. In America observatories and telescopes were built carrying the names of donors such as Lick, Yerkes, and Hooker, and more recently Keck, Hobby, and Eberly.

But now astronomy faces tasks beyond the resources of individuals. We have had to send observatories into space, both to avoid the blurring of images caused by the earth’s atmosphere and to observe radiation at wavelengths that cannot penetrate the atmosphere. Cosmology has been revolutionized by satellite observatories such as the Cosmic Background Explorer, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, working in tandem with advanced ground-based observatories. We now know that the present phase of the Big Bang started 13.7 billion years ago. We also have good evidence that, before that, there was a phase of exponentially fast expansion known as inflation.

But cosmology is in danger of becoming stuck, in much the same sense as elementary particle physics has been stuck for decades. The discovery in 1998 that the expansion of the universe is now accelerating can be accommodated in various theories, but we don’t have observations that would point to the right theory. The observations of microwave radiation left over from the early universe have confirmed the general idea of an early era of inflation, but do not give detailed information about the physical processes involved in the expansion. New satellite observatories will be needed, but will they be funded?

The recent history of the James Webb Space Telescope, planned as the successor to Hubble, is disturbingly reminiscent of the history of the SSC. At the funding level requested by the Obama administration last year, the project would continue, but at a level that would not allow the telescope ever to be launched into orbit. In July the House Appropriations Committee voted to cancel the Webb telescope altogether. There were complaints about cost increases, but as was the case with the SSC, most of the increase came because year by year the project was not adequately funded. Funding for the telescope has recently been restored, but the prognosis for future funding is not bright. The project is no longer under the authority of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. The technical performance of the Webb project has been excellent, and billions have already been spent, but the same was true of the SSC, and did not save it from cancellation.

Meanwhile, in the past few years funding has dropped for astrophysics at NASA. In 2010 the National Research Council carried out a survey of opportunities for astronomy in the next ten years, setting priorities for new observatories that would be based in space. The highest priorities went first to WFIRST, an infrared survey telescope; next to Explorer, a program of mid-sized observatories similar in scale to the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe; then to LISA, a gravitational wave observatory; and finally to an international X-ray observatory. No funds are in the budget for any of these.

Some of the slack in big science is being taken up by Europe, as for instance with the LHC and a new microwave satellite observatory named Planck. But Europe has worse financial problems than the US, and the European Union Commission is now considering the removal of large science projects from the EU budget.

Space-based astronomy has a special problem in the US. NASA, the government agency responsible for this work, has always devoted more of its resources to manned space flight, which contributes little to science. All of the space-based observatories that have contributed so much to astronomy in recent years have been unmanned. The International Space Station was sold in part as a scientific laboratory, but nothing of scientific importance has come from it. Last year a cosmic ray observatory was carried up to the Space Station (after NASA had tried to remove it from the schedule for shuttle flights), and for the first time significant science may be done on the Space Station, but astronauts will have no part in its operation, and it could have been developed more cheaply as an unmanned satellite.

The International Space Station was partly responsible for the cancellation of the SSC. Both came up for a crucial vote in Congress in 1993. Because the Space Station would be managed from Houston, both were seen as Texas projects. After promising active support for the SSC, in 1993 the Clinton administration decided that it could only support one large technological project in Texas, and it chose the Space Station. Members of Congress were hazy about the difference. At a hearing before a House committee, I heard a congressman say that he could see how the Space Station would help us to learn about the universe, but he couldn’t understand that about the SSC. I could have cried. As I later wrote, the Space Station had the great advantage that it cost about ten times more than the SSC, so that NASA could spread contracts for its development over many states. Perhaps if the SSC had cost more, it would not have been canceled.


Big science is in competition for government funds, not only with manned space flight, and with various programs of real science, but also with many other things that we need government to do. We don’t spend enough on education to make becoming a teacher an attractive career choice for our best college graduates. Our passenger rail lines and Internet services look increasingly poor compared with what one finds in Europe and East Asia. We don’t have enough patent inspectors to process new patent applications without endless delays. The overcrowding and understaffing in some of our prisons amount to cruel and unusual punishment. We have a shortage of judges, so that civil suits take years to be heard.

The Securities and Exchange Commission, moreover, doesn’t have enough staff to win cases against the corporations it is charged to regulate. There aren’t enough drug rehabilitation centers to treat addicts who want to be treated. We have fewer policemen and firemen than before September 11. Many people in America cannot count on adequate medical care. And so on. In fact, many of these other responsibilities of government have been treated worse in the present Congress than science. All these problems will become more severe if current legislation forces an 8 percent sequestration—or reduction, in effect—of nonmilitary spending after this year.

We had better not try to defend science by attacking spending on these other needs. We would lose, and would deserve to lose. Some years ago I found myself at dinner with a member of the Appropriations Committee of the Texas House of Representatives. I was impressed when she spoke eloquently about the need to spend money to improve higher education in Texas. What professor at a state university wouldn’t want to hear that? I naively asked what new source of revenue she would propose to tap. She answered, “Oh, no, I don’t want to raise taxes. We can take the money from health care.” This is not a position we should be in.

It seems to me that what is really needed is not more special pleading for one or another particular public good, but for all the people who care about these things to unite in restoring higher and more progressive tax rates, especially on investment income. I am not an economist, but I talk to economists, and I gather that dollar for dollar, government spending stimulates the economy more than tax cuts. It is simply a fallacy to say that we cannot afford increased government spending. But given the anti-tax mania that seems to be gripping the public, views like these are political poison. This is the real crisis, and not just for science.3

  1. 2

    I have written more about this in “ The Missions of Astronomy,” The New York Review, October 22, 2009. 

  2. 3

    This article is based on the inaugural lecture in the series “On the Shoulders of Giants” of the World Science Festival in New York on June 4, 2011, and on a plenary lecture at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Austin on January 9, 2012. 

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