Indeed, most of the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physics in recent years were leaders of big collaborations, sometimes consisting of thousands of scientists, not to mention the thousands of technicians and staff at huge facilities such as the 27km CERN accelerator under Geneva, where the Higgs boson was discovered a few years ago.
This “big team” aspect led Martin Rees, the British Astronomer Royal and one of the most prominent astrophysicists in the world, to comment shortly after the announcement: “The fact that the Nobel committee refuses to make group awards is of course causing them increasingly frequent problems, and giving a misleading and unfair impression of how a lot of science is actually done.”
Indeed, the Nobel Prize rules stipulate that only three living persons can share the award in any year, thus ruling out big teams, as well as deceased prime contributors such as Ronald Drever, who had made seminal contributions to the discovery of gravitational waves but died a few months ago.
Rees is right: everyone must realize that science today is often done in ways very different from a century ago, when the Nobel Prize was instituted. And this is important not just for awards, but even more for how projects are built and research is conducted.
Historians of science have noted that the Second World War and the Cold War utterly transformed scientific research into what is now labeled “big science.” In the second half of the 20th century, science came to be heavily funded by governments, the military or corporations. Big science takes place when big budgets are given to large national projects, such as the atomic bomb, radar development, accelerators, powerful lasers, and the human genome project. These require big teams, they use vast laboratories with large machines and sophisticated equipment that no one person can operate, and they aim to deliver a specific product. Moreover, many projects now keep their data hidden from everyone else, at least for a time. Gone, then, is the old romantic picture of a scientist pursuing knowledge for its own sake.
This goal-driven research has led to the officials’ and the public’s regular questioning of the validity of “basic,” fundamental science, which has no obvious immediate application. “What benefit does that bring us?” we often hear.
One man in a laboratory stands no chance against today’s ‘big science’ projects funded by governments, corporations and the military — but the quest for knowledge should not be a quest for dominance.
This attitude can be dangerous for several reasons. First, it subverts support for pure scientific research and someone like Einstein, who rarely produced papers with collaborators and never asked himself: “What benefit would this idea have?” would not survive in this kind of research climate. Secondly, small countries and small universities would not be able to pursue their own research agendas — they would need to be part of big science teams. Last but not least, it would skew the view of the public, who would consider endeavors such as sending a probe to Mars, or detecting waves from two black holes that merged more than a billion light years away, as utterly useless and unworthy of funding.
We need to accept and support all kinds of science: big science, small science, even citizen science, the participation of amateurs and the general public in projects that require lots of time and tedious tasks — such as taking thousands of space photographs to determine whether any of them show a slight change, thus perhaps indicating the existence of a planet or the passage of an asteroid. Involving the public, particularly schools, will guarantee support for science generally, not just the practical, direct-benefit kind.
We need to reopen science and the quest for knowledge as widely as possible. A positive trend is the growing number of projects that pledge to make their data available to the whole world as soon as it has been validated by internal checks. Another positive development is the insistence by several funding agencies and foundations that at least a small part of the budget for a research project be spent on public outreach.
It is indeed extremely important to keep society abreast of all scientific activity and developments and not create a chasm between scientists and the rest of the world.
Science has been changing fast, in ways that require us to be alert and reactive, lest society wake up one day and find that the quest for knowledge has turned into a quest for dominance by governments and the military, and for profit by corporations.
• Nidhal Guessoum is a professor of physics and astronomy at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum