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Why Big Science? 21/08/2013 12:13 #88

Why Big Science? An essay for "Science and School"
Hidenori Suzuki (Philosopher)

This essay is about "Big Science" for scientists and Society. The purpose is to give students information about Big Science and to support them to locate it in Science and Society. I am a philosopher of Science. As a part of my research, I have worked together with experimenters and even participated in experiments of particle physics in Japan. This essay is based mainly on my own experience from that field work.
As a typical example of “Big Science”, I bear in mind large scale experiments (large scale in participants, budget, space and time) such as particle physics experiments. I am expecting opinions of readers concerning the general validity of what is reported below.

Figure: A circle of agents who participate in science

I have distributed a questionnaire on “What is the value for students to participate in Big Science?” at the Winter School (19th ICEPP Symposium) for young particle physicists in Japan (about 20 people). As I summarize below, there were four kinds of answers.

1. Social experience
Solving problems by groups, especially an international collaborative work, is a valuable experience for students. It is useful when one goes out into the society (that is, when one is employed).

2. Challenge
In big experiments, one can touch leading-edge technologies and can do the work with leading researchers. To what extent (and by what means) one can contribute in such a circumstance is very challenging.

3. “Big” or not is irrelevant
What matters is physical purpose of the experiment. If it is interesting, he/she participates in that experiment whether it is big or not. That’s all (though it can be said that some scientific purposes require large experiments).

4. Negative opinion
Doing partial things in long period is not preferable for students. For the educational purpose, it is desirable to experience many parts (or stages) of an experiment (idea, detector construction and analysis).

We can see that one can gain various things from Big Science according to one’s own purpose. However, it seems to me that it is hard to deal with tough tasks of Big Science unless one has a strong motivation for the research in the first place. I hope this information will be used by future scientists for their appropriate career choices.

Big Science for Society

We can ask how Big Science affects Society and is affected from Society. Here, I would like to take up the problem concerning funding for Big Science.

Big Science requires a lot of funds and the needs tend to do increase greatly. Its source is principally taxes. So the meaning of investing human resources in basic science, especially in basic physics, is asked and the return to Society is expected. So “Why big science?”. It is difficult to motivate huge funds by intellectual curiosity alone (as one can see in the cancellation of Superconducting Super Collider in the US). The vision to see Science as a way for human well-being and the accountability is required.

Here, researchers have four points to mention.

1. Application of technology born in experiments or based on discoveries of basic science
Looking back in the history, there is no room to doubt the usefulness of basic science in the long run. It has produced many convenient things related to energy, transportation, communication, medical treatment, disaster prevention and so on (though it also produced many harmful things in relation to utilizations for military purposes, see for instance the article
' The bomb ' on this Forum).

2. Knowledge as Culture
Scientific knowledge itself is a kind of Culture that contributes to human “richness” (that is, mental richness). In this sense, Science is something that is comparable to Arts, though Science has the specialty of giving information about the World and ourselves (think about how Cosmology affects us).

3. Big Science for industry and economy
Various companies take part in big projects (such as the construction of an accelerator or a spacecraft). So Big Science promotes industry and thereby creates innovations and revitalizes the economy.

4. Application to other academic disciplines
Basic physics, especially, introduces new research methods in other areas such as geoscience, biology, neuroscience, and economics. Sometimes it creates new interdisciplinary areas such as biophysics and econophysics. Such applications enhance what is discussed at point 1 and 2 above.

Decision making

The question concerning funding for Science is a part of really big questions which are important for non-scientists, too. Below are these questions;

・As a member of democratic countries, what do we expect from Science and how should we promote the progress of Science to realize a better society?

・By what criteria and by means of what system should scientific researches be valued?

・How could the citizen-participation to Science and Technology policy making (“public engagement”) be fostered?

Such questions would affect “how Science proceeds” directly. Non-scientists, as citizens, need to give a thought to them because they are not only beneficiaries of Science but also managers of Science. Of course, scientists themselves have various opinions to these topics. In all that, it carries a great importance to consider “how Science Communication should be”. Here is the matter of how We (non-scientists together with scientists) steer the ship of Science.

A question to the readers

How do you think? It would be a pleasure for me if I could contribute to better Science and Society by discussing and thinking about these matters with scientists and other citizens.

Hidenori Suzuki

PhD candidate of Nagoya University,
Part-time lecturer of Nanzan University and Nagoya University

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Ultima Modifica: da Hidenori Suzuki.
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