Steven Weinberg’s thoughts on the future of Big Science
It’s easy to forget that your city possesses a great treasure. Here in Austin, we certainly have many of them, because we are awesome, but one of our most valuable is the great Dr. Steven Weinberg. A couple of weeks ago, a quite literally overflowing room was treated to some of his thoughts on “Hopes and Fears for Big Science” as part of the Austin Forum series. ”Big Science” as he spoke of it refers to those game-changing efforts of national and international science funding like the Manhattan Project or the Space Shuttle program. Save for a few mystical questions about whether the expansion of the universe is related to our aural energy fields (I think that’s what the weird guy in the fedora was talking about, anyway), it was an eye-opening, if not slightly worrisome look at the future of large science undertakings. This is no ground-breaking piece of policy education, but I think it’s an important perspective from one our great living scientists.
Did you know that the Large Hadron Collider can levitate frogs? Neither did I. That was Dr. Weinberg’s ice-breaker. The price tag on that sometimes-functional frog levitator comes to somewhere around $9 billion. And while that’s only ~1/3 the budget of the NIH, it’s a big number, and it’s a huge financial commitment for the governments involved. Obviously, the LHC isn’t going to be the last large-scale scientific undertaking of our time, not by far. But how easy is it going to be to continue making these projects happen?
For instance, over thirteen years, the Human Genome Project cost $3 billion. The Hubble telescope has amassed a cumulative cost of over $10 billion. There seems to be a ceiling of cost around the double-digit billions that modern governmental coalitions can muster to fund. So what does this mean for the future of Big Science? I don’t want to call Dr. Weinberg’s outlook pessimistic, but I didn’t leave the talk wrapped in huggy rainbows.
The first issue involves the current government atmosphere in the US and abroad. The simple truth, especially at home, is that the largest focus of both parties is cutting taxes (in various forms and using alternate labels). Moreover, a large hunk of political energy is currently being burned by members of the Tea Party movement, many of whom advocate a return to limited taxation and government expenditure (even if they are confused on the details). Dr. Weinberg laid out a clear warning: This is not compatible with the future of Big Science. Too many fields, from physics to biology, face the problem of being too expensive. Astronomy, in particular, depends on getting above the atmosphere, which is an amazingly difficult and costly mission each and every time.
But let’s pretend for a moment that there was money to spend. Wars would be over, our economy would be in full swing, and our national budget would be healthy. Then how do legislators become convinced that supporting Big Science Project X is the right thing to do? Dr. Weinberg has survived extensive years of interaction with Congresscritters, and he boiled their motivations down to one very obvious mantra:
Nothing compares to the feelings of the people who they depend on to be elected. [his use of who/whom, not mine]
It’s another translation of “all politics is local”, but it is especially troublesome for Big Science. Weinberg noted that these projects are inherently elitist. They only involve a small number of very highly-trained and highly-educated workers. It’s a difficult funding argument, and one that is only exacerbated in the midst of double-digit unemployment. There’s also the problem of geography and taking care of the folks at home. The quickest way to reduce the number of senators supporting a large science project? Picking a location will instantly drop that number to 2.
Congress is also all about sharing. Dr. Weinberg related to us a lunch he had with former Governor Ann Richards. President Clinton told her in 1993 that he could only publicly support one large science project in Texas during his administration. She threw her hat behind the International Space Station instead of the Waxahachie Supercollider. One is now in space, and the other is one of the most famously useless holes in the ground in US history. It was simply too much science money for one state to get both projects.
In the LHC, have we reached the limit to which the international community is willing to commit? Will we have to adjust our expectations to smaller Big Science projects in the future? Organizations like the Gates Foundation can’t approach those kind of large numbers, and large-scale genomic studies, species surveys, clean energy implementation, and experimental physics (among infinite other endeavors) are not getting any cheaper. Perhaps the international community will be the answer, but I expect that we’ll have to expand the definition of “international community” to get there (hello China and Middle East?)
Are these sorts of projects even a large part of the future of science? Or will small-scale research, open-access and powerful computation help avoid these realities of scale and public opinion?