Physics in Perspective

, Volume 18, Issue 3, pp 247–248 | Cite as


Meeting the Challenge of the New Big Science

In 1953 Leland Haworth, the director of Brookhaven National Laboratory, sent the Atomic Energy Commission a proposal, shortly thereafter approved, for a 25 GeV, $20 million accelerator to be called the Alternating Gradient Synchrotron. The proposal was five single-spaced pages long (one of which is almost entirely a table), plus an additional five pages of supporting material. This was among the first of the ambitious postwar initiatives that have become known as Big Science, and the scale of just about everything associated with such projects—the size, cost, number of collaborators involved in its facilities and instruments, and the length of the proposals—kept soaring. Today, proposals for large-scale facilities and the experiments to take place at them contain thousands of pages, with exhaustive descriptions of every mechanical aspect, detailed outlines of the scientific projects to be undertaken in them, and listings of every budget item. The path from an idea to the concrete realization of a physics experiment has grown progressively more time-consuming and complex.

Recently this process has become even more complicated. The new complexity arises not so much from the fact that today’s facilities, instruments, and collaborations are getting bigger, but that the research environment in which they take place has changed. More and more fields of science may make use of a large physics facility, and more subfields within physics. The facility may have to support a wider variety of instruments, more connections between seemingly disparate research programs, and a faster turnover of programs. Research cultures at large-scale facilities now resemble ecosystems, comprised of complex and evolving interactions between individuals, institutions, and the overall research environment. In this new landscape, known as the New Big Science, the marquee projects at National Laboratories do not feel pressure to grow larger than they have been in the past. Instead, incentives both from within the laboratory culture and from the surrounding funding environment encourage them to become more complex and interdisciplinary.

These developments are on display in an article in this issue, Catherine Westfall’s “From Desire to Data: How JLab’s Experimental Program Evolved.” Westfall’s article, the first of a trilogy whose successors will appear in future issues, describes the unusual twists and turns of the effort to build a 6 GeV accelerator at a new laboratory in Newport News, Virginia. The intellectual excitement of the results provided by second-generation electron scattering facilities in the mid-1970s, including the possibility of studying quark-level phenomena, was just the beginning. Projects in the era of the New Big Science require new kind of leaders with a new sets of skills. A nuts-and-bolts leader like Leland Haworth would have had difficulty navigating the ins and outs of multiple funding sources, competing disciplinary priorities, and resource allocation among diverse user groups. A project leader in the era of the New Big Science has to be at once strong enough to cope with fierce competition, nimble enough to address changing scientific and political expectations, clever enough to handle burgeoning issues involving regulations and accountability, and committed enough to campaign for the facility.

The rise of the New Big Science brought with it new kinds of challenges for managing and promoting large-scale projects. Historians chronicling the era of the New Big Sciences face a corresponding set of challenges. Understanding such projects demands a broadening of historical focus beyond self-contained theoretical programs. It requires accounting for many more factors in determinations of the reasons a facility took this direction or that. The managerial, funding, and decision-making difficulties experienced by recent large physics projects such as ITER, the international fusion energy research facility in Saint-Paul-lès-Durance, France, reveals the importance of understanding the landscape in which these projects take place.

The historical challenges the New Big Science poses nevertheless provide novel opportunities to tell the stories of projects that unfold in these new kinds of large-scale laboratories. What kinds of leaders have succeeded? What causes projects to succeed or fail? A key aspect of the New Big Science is interdisciplinary: what form do these vast projects take on the lab floor or in the administrative offices, and what determines whether members of different disciplinary camps can work together effectively?

Questions of this variety, which the rise of the New Big Science makes central to the ongoing vitality of the history of physics, also highlight the need for journals such as Physics in Perspective as forums in which to address developments in physics in the widest possible way. Westfall’s article in this issue, and its forthcoming sequels, represent one mode of tackling these questions. We hope, in time, to see others as well.

Robert P. Crease

Joseph D. Martin

Peter Pesic

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© Springer International Publishing 2016

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