Big Science

I came across a very interesting article about `big science’ by a geneticist Bill Amos. He makes a few points which I agree with – some of them I mentioned before in a previous post about putting all our eggs in one basket.

The main point is about how we are moving towards a world where research funding goes to a few large groups, rather than to many small groups. We put all our eggs into a few baskets. One obvious consequence is that a greater percentage of scientists will have no research funding. The detrimental consequences of this are many, such as good scientists leaving the country.

It makes good sense to ask whether this practice of big science leads to good science. What exactly will throwing ever larger amounts of money at a problem solve? Further, does it lead to good training of our PhD students? Are they trained to be innovative thinkers and leaders when they are a junior member of a huge team?

Another interesting point refers to value for money. In my experience, small grants to small research groups provide much better value for money than large grants to large groups. In a small group, with a small grant, each penny has to be counted and there is very little wastage.


6 thoughts on “Big Science

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Big Science

  2. I agree. We are also quite poor at the other end of the spectrum, i.e. funding membership of the largest international science projects such as CERN. This is also a great pity as such organizations run many experiments, large and small; they offer postgrads the opportunity to train with world class teams and avoid the ‘eggs in one basket’ problem.

  3. Big international teams are important for certain fields but as a general rule many small grants would seem to be better value. A scientist is not going to abandon an idea if he or she only manages to raise 100,000 instead of a million. The idea might not be able to be pursued as thoroughly as he wishes but he or she will see push it as scientists are inherently stubborn. Hard evidence in support of this have been published by Fortin in Plos One. I doubt policy makers really grasp this at all.

  4. I don’t disagree with Robert. My point is that membership of large international organisations such as EAS or CERN can actually reduce the need for good scientists to leave the country. It is quite acceptable (indeed normal) to have a few month’s ‘beamtime’ at such international institutions, while returning home for the teaching semester. While the facilites are large, the particular project can be quite modest.

    From astronomy to particle physics, most of the cutting edge experimentation is done at such ‘big science’ facilities, so it is important that Ireland doesn’t lose out. What we definitely shouldn’t do is throw large amounts of funding at a few small home-grown groups that may or may not be successful.

    • Agreed. CERN is a long-standing anomaly in Ireland, and our politicians still don’t want to know. There are big international centres like CERN that it is important to be a member of, and participate in. They presumably come under the category of `small’ amounts of funding.
      My point was a little different, about national and European funding of researchers at their home institutions. I know that you know that.
      Here’s a link to the article Robert mentioned
      which finds that
      funding strategies that target diversity are more likely to succeed. Just like investing in shares.

  5. In Denmark, in the 1960s and 70s, the government allocated a very generous pie of research funding to *all* their third level institutions,allowing each to decide how best to spend it, on groups lareg and small.. The result was a spectacular success for many years (at least in physics) …ibe interesting to see how that worked here

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