Saturday, April 21, 2012

Steven Weinberg on the Future of Big (Experimental) Science

LHC may have been built successfully, but according to Weinberg, it may very well be the last of its breed, because it's going to be almost impossible to get the kind of funding needed for the next (and much more powerful) accelerator or observatory. He comes to this conclusion based on his experience with physicists' failure in the 1990s to get adequate funding for their dream machine -- the Superconducting SuperCollider (SSC); the project was abandoned after spending some 2 billion dollars on it.

How about a funding model based on international cooperation and collaboration? He's pessimistic about this as well; he says, "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."

All in all, not a good prognosis for Big Science. Here's an extract on how a combination of political rivals as well as scientific rivals (scientists who argued that the money is better spent on Small Science) helped kill the SSC project:

So in the next decade, physicists are probably going to ask their governments for support for whatever new and more powerful accelerator we then think will be needed. ...

That is going to be a very hard sell. My pessimism comes partly from my experience in the 1980s and 1990s in trying to get funding for another large accelerator.

[... snip, snip...]

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.


  1. Wavefunction said...

    Well, as Freeman Dyson says, Big Science waxes and wanes but Small Science stays more or less constant, so we can be assured of at least some contributions from Small Science.