Field of Science

In praise of Small (and Cheap) science

Originally posted on the Scientific American blog

The discovery of DNA structure was an outstanding example of Small Science (Image: Subversive Archeologist)
I am a big fan of Small Science. In spite of the riches unearthed by Big Science in the fields of biology and physics during the last fifty years, historically speaking much of scientific progress has come from small groups or individuals working with relatively cheap equipment and resources. For instance consider discoveries like the structure of DNA, the structure of proteins, nuclear fission, the cosmic microwave background radiation and the transistor. All of these have been the beneficiaries of Small Science. Even in those cases where large organizations have supported these developments, the key findings themselves have come from small groups left alone to pursue their own interests. The work done by these groups benefited from a maximum of flexibility and a minimum of bureaucratic interference.

However there are some cases where Big Science is necessary for making discoveries. The LHC and the Higgs Boson, the Human Genome Project and the ENCODE project are just three examples of areas where Big Science involving massive government support and billions of dollars were necessary. These projects have uncovered invaluable insights into the workings of the universe and of living organisms. However they run the risk of giving the impression that Big Science is here to stay and that Small Science will be less important in the future.

I happen to strongly disagree with this perspective and it's nice to see Bruce Alberts, the editor of Science, expressing similar sentiments in an editorial this week. He points out at least three major biological challenges whose solutions will likely arise from Small Science. These three challenges are; a continued investigation of unknown genetic and biological function, a continued investigation of protein structure, and a fuller understanding of emergent properties.

In all three of these areas, initial success is likely to be engendered by an emphasis on special cases than on general principles. Special cases are of more interest to small groups rather than to large organizations. At some point we will need general principles encompassing these special cases, but we are not there yet. For instance at some point we will hopefully have a handle on the transition between different layers of emergence, but the starting point for any such understanding will be the investigation of particular cases. When it comes to a deeper understanding of emergence in biology, we are in the same position that Darwin was when he came back from his momentous voyage on the Beagle. By that time he had a comprehensive list of parts in the form of animal and plant collections and had a good idea of how they might relate to each other. 

We are in a similar position regarding emergent properties. We now have a good understanding of individual levels of biological hierarchy and we have some idea of how they might be connected. We know enough about atoms, molecules, genes, cells and organisms at their own levels. But like Darwin in 1836, we lack an overarching theory to put it all together. And just like Darwin spent the next twenty years examining individual cases like finch beaks, dog breeds and barnacle growth, so we must spend our time trying to figure out what lies between individual steps of the ladder. This is a task best suited to Small Science, and hopefully in twenty years Big Science will be able to take over and provide us with a grand perspective just like Darwin did in 1859.

To see why we need to support Small Science, it's worth undertaking a brief detour into the history of Big Science. The era of Big Science’ in the United States began in the 1930s. Nobody exemplified this spirit more than Ernest Lawrence at the University of California, Berkeley whose cyclotrons smashed subatomic particles together to reveal nature’s deep secrets. Lawrence was one of the first true scientist-entrepreneurs. He paid his way through college selling all kinds of things as a door-to-door salesman and brought the same persuasive power a decade later to sell his ideas about particle accelerators to wealthy businessmen and philanthropists. Sparks flying off his big machines, his ‘boys’ frantically running around to fix miscellaneous leaks and shorts, Lawrence would proudly display his Nobel Prize winning invention to millionaires as if it were his own child. The philanthropists’ funding paid off in at least one practical respect; it was Lawrence’s modified cyclotrons that produced the uranium used in the Hiroshima bomb.

After the war big science was propelled to even greater heights. With ever bigger particle accelerators needed to explore ever smaller particles at higher energies, science became an expensive prospect. The decades through the 70s were dominated by high-energy physics that needed billion-dollar accelerators to verify its predictions. Fermilab, Brookhaven and of course, CERN, all became household names. Researchers competed for the golden apples that would sustain these behemoths. But one of the rather unfortunate fallouts of these developments was that good science started to be defined by the amount of money it needed. Gone were the days when a Davy or a Cavendish could make profound discoveries using tabletop apparatus. The era of molecular biology and the billion dollar Human Genome Project further cemented everyone's faith in the fruits of expensive research.

This faith is not entirely misplaced since there will always be endeavors which will require large, multidisciplinary organizations and billions of dollars in funding. But these facts also create a bias in the minds of young scientists just entering the game. The past success of Big Science makes it appear to young scientists that they need to necessarily do expensive science in order to be successful. Part of this belief does come from the era of big accelerator physics and high profile molecular biology as noted above. But we don't have to see far to realize that this belief is flawed and it has been demolished by physicists themselves; two years ago, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to scientists who produced graphene by peeling off layers of it from graphite using good old scotch tape. How many millions of dollars did it take to do this experiment?

Now one might argue (and many do) that the low hanging scientific fruits accessible through simple experiments have largely been picked and that picking the high hanging fruit will necessarily be more expensive, but such a perspective is really in the eye of the beholder. As the graphene scientists proved, there are still fledgling fields like materials science where simple and ingenious experiments can contribute to profound discoveries. Another field where such experiments can provide handsome dividends is the other fledgling field of neuroscience. Cheap research that provides important insights in this area is exemplified by the work of the neurologist Vilayanur Ramachandran, who has performed the simplest and most ingenious experiments on patients using mirrors and other elementary equipment to unearth key insights into the functioning of the brain. Scientists like Ramachandran and Andre Geim have shown that if you find the right field, you can find the right simple experiment.

However, are university administrations going to come around to this point of view? Are they going to recruit a young researcher describing an ingenious tabletop experiment worth five thousand dollars or are they going to go for one who is campaigning for a hundred thousand dollars worth of fancy equipment? Sadly, the current answer seems to be that they would rather prefer the latter. Faculty appointments have turned into a kind of auction, where the professor potentially bringing in the largest grants and most expensive equipment is likely to win the bid. This has got to change, not only because simple experiments and Small Science still hold the potential to provide unprecedented insights in the right fields, but also because the undue association of science with money misleads young researchers into thinking that more expensive is better. It threatens to undermine much that science has stood for since The Enlightenment. The function of academic scientists is to do high-quality research and mentor the next generation of scientist-citizens. Raising money should come second. A scientist who spends most of his time securing funds ends up being little different from a corporate lackey soliciting capital.

Fortunately there is hope on the horizon. Firstly, Big Science is constrained by its very size and nature. Especially in an increasingly poor funding environment, the fortunes of Big Science will wax and wane while Small Science's will stay more or less constant. But the real revolution that will make it possible to sustain Small Science is the revolution in open-source science, crowdsourcing and crowdfunding. Already we are seeing the value of crowdsourced projects in the form of endeavors like InnoCentive. Crowdsourcing has been on powerful display in the success of initiatives like the game FoldIt, where ordinary citizens pool their talents to solve thorny problems in protein folding and drug discovery. Each of these citizens is a unit in Small Science. What's remarkable is that the combined power of these units is equivalent to the capabilities harnessed by Big Science. With the increasing domestication of biotechnology and the plummeting cost of information retrieval and processing, ordinary citizens will find it easier than ever to collectively contribute to important scientific puzzles, provided they are pitched to them the right way. The one feature of Big Science that Small Science will borrow and raise to even greater heights will be international collaboration, expect that such collaboration will no longer be the exclusive province of scientific experts. In the future anyone will be able to play with scientific tools and results.

As the twenty-first century progresses in key fields like neuroscience, cosmology and genomics, I have no doubt that Small Science, both in the form of small groups working with cheap equipment and citizen scientists pooling their talents, will continue to make great advances. Where Big Science will continue to falter and occasionally rise, Small Science will keep steadily humming along in the form of games, public challenges, free encyclopedias and open-access reports. The fruits of Small Science may occasionally be used by Big Science to uncover deep facts, but in doing this Big Science itself would have stood on Small Science's shoulders.


  1. A few questions -

    1.) Is there a meaningful distinction that could be made between those "Big Science" projects that require infrastructure to be constructed (i.e., the LHC) and those which mostly utilize resources in place (i.e., the ENCODE project, at least based on my thin knowledge of the details)?

    2.) How do ostensibly "Big Science" projects like synchrotrons, neutron sources, and high-field NMR centers (i.e., NHMFL at Florida State, NYSBC in Manhattan) place here? The bulk of their use is as a resource for individual research groups.

    3.) Regarding the role of academic scientists - what of those graduate students who get involved into these large projects? Is the natural propensity to intellectually/scientifically explore and wander reduced since they're now part of a giant project with (putative) deadlines and conditions?

    I suppose I come down on the "Investigator-initiated Science" side in the end - generally "Small Science" but willing and able to take advantage of "Big Science" infrastructure as feasible.

  2. I think these are all interesting questions and they point to the fact that the distinction between Small and Big Science may indeed be blurred in the future. I am especially intrigued by the centers which serve as resources for individual groups since these are not focused on one big thing. From this point of view it seems that in the future, citizen science projects like the Galaxy Zoo may technically be classified as Big Science but may serve the needs of Small Science. It's also really interesting to think about the graduate students; as you noted, will these projects cut down on their intellectual exploration? In fact one doesn't even have to look far since when I was a graduate student, I thought that having to sign up for the NMR curtailed my ability to play with the machine. Hopefully that's something I will be able to do when I make millions off my antigravity experiment and buy me my own 1 GHZ spectrometer.


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