October 30, 2013 | 1
Here is the link to the YouTube video of my panel discussion with Steven Weinberg, Sara Seager and Neil Turok. I was very pleased to have a productive conversation about the future of science with such sparkling and provocative thinkers. I was also gratified to be able to bring a biology perspective to a discussion immersed in physics and astronomy; there is no doubt that while physics and astronomy will continue to generate astonishing insights into the universe, many of the most pressing problems in science and ethics confronting us in this century will come from biology. The discussion was preceded by an interview with Commander Chris Hadfield who delighted us from the International Space Station with music, videos and lucid demonstrations of science under zero gravity conditions. As with any discussion there was not enough time to say everything we wanted, so I want to summarize the discussion here and note some additional thoughts. Since we all addressed each other on a first name basis on the show, that’s how I will address my fellow panelists here.
My somewhat simplistic but realistic assessment of the debate is this: generally speaking I found Steven and myself pessimistic about the future of Big Science and Sara and Neil optimistic. However there was considerable overlap between our thinking and personally I think we agreed far more than we disagreed. Steven’s pessimism comes from his storied career in a field which is now perhaps too mature for inexpensive, simple experiments. It also comes from his experience watching plans for the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) crumble in the face of political opposition and increasing costs. My own pessimism is actually disguised optimism. It comes from the realization that science communication and computing power have tremendously advanced since the 1960s, and that at least some of Big Science can now be done as Small Science, especially in the field of biology. Sara and Neil felt that science is still a good sell, especially when it involves intuitively exciting topics like exoplanets and quantum computing, and I agree. Sara especially realizes that if the funding agencies were to grant her unlimited access to funds, the best projects to spend all that money on would be Big Science projects.
The main challenges facing Big Science are what they always have been: How do you get the public and politicians to support multi-billion dollar science projects, especially in a bad economy? And how will this impact the way in which science is done in the 21st century?
It’s a complex problem to address and there are many angles from which you can approach it. A few central themes stood out from our discussion. One of the more provocative ones concerned the fact that Big Science has to compete with manned space missions and other projects. Steven emphatically thinks that putting a man on the moon was a spectator sport that generated almost nothing of scientific value, and I agree with him. In his book “From Eros to Gaia”, Freeman Dyson has a simple but careful analysis of the payloads of the Apollo missions, the time spent by the astronauts in space and the science done on the moon, and he concludes that from a purely scientific standpoint Apollo was prohibitively wasteful. It is undoubtedly true that unmanned missions can provide, at a fraction of the cost, the kind of basic scientific knowledge that can be gained from putting humans in space. The Voyager and Pioneer spacecraft for instance have provided a windfall of remarkable scientific observations about the planets which manned missions can only dream of gathering. However Chris Hadfield also had an excellent counterpoint; manned missions can inspire a whole generation of scientists and engineers to pursue technical careers (whether this is a good idea when there are very few jobs available is a very different topic for a different post).
The value of this argument was however superseded by an even more important point from Steven; that science loses not only when it is competing with other kinds of science but even more so when it’s competing with other government responsibilities like education, healthcare, national security and a billion other big and sundry things that government is supposed to do. The problem in this country is reduced government spending on essential services. If these services were stable and kept well fed with funds, they would not compete with basic science. The problem is thus not just one of Big Science, but it goes beyond science and reaches into the proper responsibility of government. To enable science, government should enable our entire way of life in a sense.
Sara also made an excellent point, and one that I would like to expand on much more in another post. She pointed out that when fields are new and vibrant, when the low hanging fruit is still ripe for the picking, then small and cheap science can undoubtedly make a difference. One of the most important discoveries in her own field was done by using a small telescope stationed in a parking lot. Steven and I acknowledged that this was indeed the case not for particle physics but for its precursor, nuclear physics. Most of the important discoveries in nuclear physics in the first half of the century were done using tabletop equipment costing a few hundred dollars; as Steven mentioned, Rutherford discovered the atomic nucleus with a grant of 70 pounds. I should also note – on a somewhat wistful note – that these simple experiments led to papers written in simple language which persistent laymen could understand; for instance the historian Richard Rhodes carefully read all the pioneering papers in nuclear physics as preparation for his seminal book “The Making of the Atomic Bomb”. By now the problems of particle physics have grown so big and need such high energies to yield anything of value that’s it’s hard to see how you can get away from using multibillion dollar equipment and teams of thousands of scientists and engineers. In addition the literature in the field has become impenetrable to non-specialists. Sara’s own field of exoplanets in contrast is youthful. It can still be tackled using small science approaches and its major discoveries and techniques can still be explained in relatively plain language, although as she pointed out even this era is rapidly passing.
This brings me to biology, and I was glad I could at least partially touch on it during the discussion. Compared to physics biology is still a new field; messy, unexplored and full of possibilities. It presents problems which would benefit from a maximum of diversity and Darwinian selection and a minimum of tunnel vision and bureaucratic interference. Subfields like neuroscience are even newer so one might think that there is still low hanging fruit in such fields which can be picked with small, cheap science. In fact it’s worth thinking in this context about the Human Genome Project which is regarded as the quintessential Big Science scheme. Even in that case, Craig Venter who was associated with the project split off from it within a few years, formed his own company which finished sequencing the genome and accomplished this in about 10% of the cost. Clearly sequencing the genome was not something for which Big Science was an absolute requirement. With the cost of sequencing plummeting at a rate exceeding Moore’s Law, it would now be even more possible to do biology on the cheap. One very promising development which I could only briefly touch on was the advent of crowdsourcing. I believe crowdsourcing can not only reduce the cost of Big Science by distributing resources and data analysis across thousands of scientists and laymen but it can also serve as an excellent vehicle for getting ordinary citizens interested in science.
The ability of diverse, small science approaches to address important problems in fledgling fields is precisely why the Brain Map Initiative enthusiastically supported by President Obama is controversial. As I pointed out in the discussion, the problem with that initiative is not that its goal – mapping the activity of individual neurons – is misguided, but that this goal ignores other equally productive ways of understanding the brain at higher levels. You can study how the different modules of the brain interact with each other without first understanding how every single neuron in these modules fires. The latter can certainly enrich the former, but it’s not essential. At the very least, the example of the Human Genome Project shows us that Big Science projects should be flexible and open to alternative, diverse approaches of solving the same problem. As Linus Pauling put it, to generate good ideas in science you should first generate lots of ideas, then throw the bad ones away. The problem with Big Science is that it runs the risk of pigeonholing itself into a box with a limited number of approaches, a paradigm that would be especially damaging in a new field like neuroscience.
Neil had the last word and it was one that enabled all of us to end on a positive note. He pointed out the tremendous – incalculable, in fact – benefits that have come from basic scientific fields like quantum mechanics, relativity and genetics. Internet companies are really piggybacking on the quantum revolution that gave us electronics, lasers and computers and many of their leaders gratifyingly realize the value of investment in basic science and math. One could say something similar about biomedical companies in the future which are undoubtedly going to reap the benefits of the sequencing revolution. Neil thinks that getting young people around the world engaged in basic research is going to be key in the progress of science. Unfortunately I don’t think we got to spend enough time on the paramount issue of education, but Neil’s take on the issue made it obvious that education is going to be one of the pillars of continued scientific excellence. Personally, while I am appalled by some of the education standards and rampant anti-science sentiment in this country and around the world, I also feel a renewed sense of hope when I meet young people who seem as excited about science as young people always were. The others expressed similar sentiments, speaking with pride and hope about the students and ordinary people they meet who are excited about the latest scientific advances.
In the last fifty years we have discovered the most astonishing things about life and the cosmos. We have confirmed that we are all stardust, found remnants of dead viruses in our genome, located empathy in non-human species and tested the otherworldly predictions of quantum mechanics. We continue to discover truths about our world that stun, inspire and exemplify what human beings are capable of. The trick is to find the right ways of communicating all these findings to young people and other citizens, emphasizing how the most basic science both invokes a sense of wonder about the universe and is also the source of unexpected spinoffs that create jobs, save lives and generate wealth. I and the others on the panel ended on a note of confidence that if we can convince people around the world of these benefits of science, there should be no reason why science – big, small and everything in between – does not continue to thrive.
Note: I want to thank the moderator, Piya Chattopadhyay, for doing a fine job keeping the discussion on track and Sandra Gionas for inviting me on the show.