Large-scale research: from atomic bombs to citizen science
Horizons No 119
What’s a country to do with a spare ten billion? Bid to host the Olympic Games, finance a new airport? Build a hydroelectric dam, commission an aircraft carrier? How about a state-of-the-art space telescope?
Indeed, since the Second World War, politicians and society have regularly agreed to support pharaonic science projects, despite their exorbitant costs. That’s because Big Science makes us dream. It feeds into our desire for knowledge and dramatically demonstrates our ability to question nature in all its extremes.
Open to all disciplines
But most interestingly, there’s more to it than just that. There’s the astonishing success of ‘science diplomacy’, which has succeeded in fusing into joint scientific projects not only the political but also the financial commitment of many countries. Major research infrastructures are now tools also open to all disciplines, broadening the collaborative side of Big Science. This is a virtuous strategy, as the growing number of actors and possible benefits improves the chances of fresh funding: we’re no longer aiming only to observe black holes but also to improve health and protect the environment.
In these high-tech projects, there’s a risk, however, that we confuse the tool and the goal. Of course, politics are inherent in any massive, multi-decade investment. There’s the colossal bureaucracy, the excessive promises and the pressure to achieve results. And the hazard is that scientists become managers and communicators bereft of their risk appetite and provocative thought.
Uncompromising sense of honesty
Nevertheless, there is hope, such as the example set by John Ellis of Cern. Back in 2007 – a year before the new LHC accelerator was to be inaugurated – he wrote in Nature that failing to observe the Higgs boson would actually be more interesting than confirming it. This was a bucket of cold water in the face of the politicians paying for the LHC, but for giant research projects to fulfil their true mission – to advance knowledge – they must protect what is at the heart of science: an uncompromising sense of honesty. Even, or especially, when it may not sit well with political decision-makers.