Science, big and small

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Science  22 Dec 2017:
Vol. 358, Issue 6370, pp. 1504
DOI: 10.1126/science.aar7642

The multidimensional, detailed observations of the collision of two neutron stars are recognized as Science's Breakthrough of the Year. This represents an exciting new phase of astronomy with tremendous potential for the future—and a great example of “big science.”

The two detectors of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), along with the European Virgo detector, played key roles in this breakthrough. The discovery of a remarkable gravitational wave signal by three spatially separated detectors allowed the source to be pinpointed, and many different electromagnetic signals associated with the dramatic fusion of two massive neutron stars could be collected and analyzed. These observations confirmed the likely sources for many gamma-ray bursts as well as a mechanism for the formation of many heavy elements.


“…discoveries…of small science projects can lay the groundwork for…‘big science’ projects.”

Although discoveries from LIGO have been relatively rapid, they overlie a long history of painstaking work by scientists and engineers, as well as patient support from the U.S. National Science Foundation, which has invested $1.1 billion in LIGO since 1990. LIGO represents an important project with a clear objective, based on a solid theoretical foundation, that was amply funded over time and was driven by an outstanding team of committed researchers with considerable attention to project management. For those directly involved, it must be extraordinarily gratifying to see decades of effort come to fruition in such a spectacular fashion and to have made such contributions to truly universal questions.

By contrast, a great number of other important discoveries come from small teams of investigators who ask more open-ended questions that, in some cases, turn out to have far-reaching consequences. This applies to some of this year's Breakthrough runners-up. “Small science” approaches allow a wide range of questions to be explored and permit relatively facile changes in scientific direction in response to key observations made along the way. Some discoveries made over the course of small science projects can lay the groundwork for more coordinated “big science” projects. Indeed, development of the general theory of relativity, the invention of the interferometer, and conception of and discovery of black holes and neutron stars were among the essential advances leading to this year's Breakthrough of the Year.

I served as director of the U.S. National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) for more than 7 years. This institute (part of the National Institutes of Health) had traditionally funded almost exclusively small science projects. However, shortly before I started there, NIGMS had initiated several larger, coordinated team science programs during the period of rapid budget growth from 1998 to 2003. During my tenure, NIGMS commissioned assessments of some of these programs by skilled but disinterested evaluators. Although the details of these assessments differed, one overall conclusion was that big science programs with sharply defined goals were perceived to be more successful than those with more vague goals, such as increasing knowledge in a given field. This was especially true when attempts were made to compare the results to the hypothetical alternative of investing the same level of funds in a range of small science projects. It can be tempting to use language that captures the excitement of large projects with clear objectives such as landing a human on the moon or sequencing the human genome for other organized efforts—big or small—with more open-ended goals, but this terminology can lead to misunderstanding and misaligned expectations by the scientific community and the general public.

Science moves forward best with a combination of small and big projects. Small science projects can expose clues about important mysteries and can build on one another to lay the groundwork for coordinated efforts. Well-conceived and -managed big science projects can pay huge dividends that could not have been achieved through other means.

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