University and national laboratory leaders gather to discuss 'Big Science'

Surrounded by big exhibits that scientists from the University of Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory helped to create, the leaders of those three institutions discussed the role and promise of the “symphony orchestra” that is big science.

The seventh event in the Joint Speaker Series organized by the Office of the Vice President for Research and for National Laboratories was held at the Museum of Science and Industry in May to encourage University faculty members and the labs’ scientists, researchers and engineers to get acquainted and share their work.

Big science involves addressing fundamental questions that require very large-scale facilities and a complex team of scientists. Examples of its importance and how successful it can be are plentiful, from the first manned mission to land on the Moon in 1969 to sequencing the human genome and discovering the Higgs boson in the past few years.

Eric Isaacs, director of Argonne National Laboratory, pointed out that the enormous scope of big science projects raises important questions of national policy. “When we talk about what’s beyond the Large Hadron Collider, when we talk about what the next Human Genome Project may look like, it’s a huge scale,” Isaacs said. “The question that we have to address strategically is, can we still afford to do everything? Or is it necessary for all large projects in the future to be international collaborations?”

In looking at our national investments in big science, Isaacs said, the United States should focus on the expected outcome. “There’s only one Higgs, so in my opinion, solving the Higgs in an international collaboration is a very good thing. You might not say the same thing about research that drives economic development, such as the work that goes on at a synchrotron, or at a free electron laser. That work may lead to new materials for energy, or new ideas for telecommunications. So we should ask the question, where does it make sense to collaborate, and where does it make sense to compete?”

University of Chicago President, Robert J. Zimmer, noted that big science projects have been well worth the investment in the past and will continue to be so in the future. “Fundamentally, science is a long-term investment in the well being of the country,” he said, pointing out the impact that big science has on national security, health and economic growth.

Looking ahead, a wealth of big science projects are in various stages of development. Piermaria Oddone, director of Fermilab, pointed to several promising research projects currently making great strides, including the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search, the Dark Energy Survey and the NOvA Neutrino Experiment. “In many ways—not including funding—this is the golden age of particle physics,” Oddone said.

Funding and economic growth

Panelist Trudy Vincent, the University’s associate vice president for federal relations, warned cuts to big science are inevitable due to Sequestration and the federal government’s push to reduce the budget deficit. “It’s particularly bad right now for big science because there’s less political and public support for big-ticket, basic science.” 

Nevertheless, other panelists stressed the need to remain positive. In absolute dollars, federal funding for basic research remains substantial, Oddone said. “Bear in mind that the National Institutes of Health’s budget is equal to all the biological research funding in the rest of the world combined.”

Still, the rate of growth in research funding is lower in the United States than in many other countries. Panelists pointed out that scientific research budgets in China have been expanding 5 to 10 percent a year, while here they’ve been growing only a few percentage points a year. Sequestration, which is not set to expire until 2021, may further inhibit growth. “In the long run, this difference in funding levels would allow other countries to overtake us in science and quality of life,” said Isaacs.

Besides constricting research, low funding levels in the United States risk “losing a generation of scientists,” Oddone added. “If we don’t have a good rate of growth in research funding, we won’t absorb young scientists and will go into decline.”

One way to make better use of research funding is to think strategically about what projects to support. “Unlike 20 years ago, we can no longer afford to do everything,” Isaacs said.

However, the strategic decision to opt out of some international research initiatives may result in some lost opportunities for technological leadership; for example, the United States is not currently investing in research pursued by China and India to develop a nuclear reactor driven by a particle accelerator, which are considered safer than conventional reactors.

Strengthening public engagement

“Scientists need to do a better job explaining their research to the public,” suggested moderator Steve Edwards, a former journalist and now deputy director of programming at the University’s Institute of Politics.

Zimmer observed that colleges and universities must also play a role in educating students to think more broadly about their research. “Take almost any fresh PhD and ask them to talk about what they are doing and they give too narrow a talk,” he noted. He added that making a case for a project requires researchers to put what they are doing in a fuller context that has the benefit of creating an intellectually richer and more effective argument.

With his own graduate students, Isaacs said, he encourages them to balance the “deep dive” of a PhD with a wider understanding of policy and communications, “to think narrowly and deeply, but also broadly, so they will be able to explain their research to their parents, their neighbors and to the world.”