From Big Science to Little Science: it all counts

Directorate for Science, Technology and Industry
Page 59 

In late 1995 the managers of the Hubble Space Telescope took a bold step. Normally, astronomers from around the world compete vigorously for the right to use this multi-billion dollar instrument for a few precious minutes. But this time, for ten whole days, the telescope was pointed at nothing -- the emptiest possible part of the sky. To the delight of the Hubble team, the resulting picture was very far from blank. Some three thousand objects could be seen, each one a galaxy containing hundreds of billions of stars.

The galaxies that are relatively nearby exhibit their structure, but the faintest, most distant, ones are mere tiny smudges. Light from these barely visible galaxies has been travelling towards us for several billion years. Since the entire universe is only some 12 billion years old, these are actually the very first galaxies that ever were. Looking for older and more distant objects may now be fruitless -- there is (or was) nothing more to see: scientists had, at long last, taken a picture of everything that has ever existed, looking back to almost the beginning of time.

Also in 1995, a group of excited physicists announced the discovery of an elementary particle that had eluded them for many years: the fabled Top Quark. It's a monster among particles, weighing in at almost 200 times the mass of the garden-variety proton. To coax it into existence required the full power of the world's biggest atom-smasher, the billion-dollar Tevatron at Fermilab near Chicago. With this discovery, scientists who study the physical world at the most fundamental level could, at long last, confirm the so-called Standard Model, the theory that explains everything on the smallest scale in terms of the most elementary constituents of matter: quarks and leptons.

Small is beautiful too

These two great discoveries are among the many triumphs of "Big Science" -- expensive, complex, multi-year projects that are targeted at some of the most difficult challenges that confront modern science. Huge facilities are not always the hallmark of Big Science. For example, the vast Human Genome Project involves co-ordinating the work of a large number of medium-sized, independently-funded research groups in many countries. Still, a typical Big Science effort requires the expenditure of large amounts of money, and the management of multinational teams of scientists and engineers over many years. One must not, of course, forget about "small science"; after all, the most important technological breakthrough of the century occurred on 16 December 1947, when the first transistor was assembled on an ordinary tabletop at Bell Laboratories.

The role and significance of Big Science projects and programmes continue to evolve, based on the changing needs of scientists and of policy-makers. Many researchers in "small science" fields, such as condensed matter research, are now the primary users of very large facilities, such as neutron sources and synchrotron radiation sources. In public policy, in areas such as health, food production or environmental protection, there is a growing need for the results of large-scale research, for example, genome mapping and Earth-observing systems. Thus, though research budgets are under scrutiny in many OECD countries, governments face the ongoing challenge of maintaining strong megascience programmes. And with reason, for there are urgent questions to deal with.

Static radio

Take the case of radio astronomy. It is a classic instance where science policy interacts with other policy issues, and which by its nature absolutely demands international consultation by governments.

Astronomers require access to extremely clear, interference-free portions of the radio spectrum to study the faint signals from cosmic radio sources. This access is threatened by the enormous increase in the commercial use of the radio spectrum. Until recently, radio astronomy observatories could be protected from most man-made interference by being located in remote areas.

Even so, as the spectrum becomes more crowded, instances of interference occur more often, and precious and expensive telescope time is increasingly lost. Of greatest concern are the transmissions from large numbers of global, low-orbit telecom satellites now coming online. These may completely block access to spectral regions that provide unique information on some astronomical phenomena. This new situation cannot be remedied by geographical isolation and thus adds a new dimension to radio astronomers' struggle with manmade interference. An appreciation of the magnitude of the problem can be obtained by considering a simple hand-held mobile telephone unit.

If this unit were located as far away as the Moon, its signal would appear on Earth as one of the brightest radio sources in the sky at its particular transmission frequency, compared with naturally emitting astronomical objects. The signals from a commercial satellite can be a hundred million times stronger, making observations at those and adjacent frequencies effectively impossible. The problem may become much worse for the next generation of radio-telescopes now being planned. These instruments will be a hundred times more sensitive than current telescopes -- sensitive enough to permit observation of nearly the entire history of the Universe back to just after the Big Bang.

It is increasingly difficult to deal with interference issues within existing national and international regulatory bodies. Radio astronomy, whose progress is in the public interest, and satellite service providers who benefit the public, must find a way to coexist and prosper. The technical and regulatory provisions for coexistence can only emerge from a dialogue between all those involved: national and international regulatory bodies, the worldwide radio astronomy community, and the telecommunication companies. The Megascience Forum at the OECD is taking the lead in preparing and initiating the dialogue, probably with the help of an unofficial task force with participants from industry, astronomy, regulatory bodies and governments.

What future for megascience?

It is customary when speculating about the future and megascience to invoke the unpredictability of the scientific enterprise, and the way that actual progress almost always exceeds both the expectations and imaginings of prognosticators. The spectacular advances of the 20th century, and the timidity (in hindsight) of predictions made a hundred years ago, justify high hopes regarding the next hundred years, combined with caution about the details of the discoveries that lie ahead.

Still, it should be somewhat sobering to note that many of the most profound questions that baffled scientists in the 1890s are still unanswered. How big is the Universe? How and when did it begin? Will it ever end? What are the most fundamental constituents of matter? What is the true nature of space and time? How did life originate on our planet? Is there life elsewhere? How does the mind work? These questions, perfectly intelligible to scientists of three, four, or ten generations ago, must still be recorded in the "Don't Know" column. Science itself has added new items to the roll: how can quantum mechanics be re-conciled with gravitation? Why does Nature appear to be exquisitely fine-tuned to permit (or perhaps require) the existence of life and even minds?

Complicating matters as we approach the end of this century of great discoveries is the observation that there are still some embarrassingly large gaps in our knowledge. What, for instance, is the Universe made of? After all, about 90% of it appears to be missing, and there are few good guesses as to what or where it may be. Sometimes, doubts remain even in those areas where most scientists want to declare a hard-won victory. The dogma of the Big Bang, for example, appears to most observers as a certainty, but others point to a few cracks in the edifice which could still, conceivably, come tumbling down. High expectations and lingering uncertainties mean that the "End of Science" is nowhere in sight. One thing is certain: Big Science will play its part in filling in the blank spots on the map.


Megascience Policy Issues, OECD, 1995 ISBN 92-64-14557-5.

Science with the Square Kilometre Array, A.R. Taylor and R Braun, eds., March 1999. Internet:

©OECD Observer No 217-218, Summer 1999

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