A (probable) effect of investments on “sexy” #BigScience projects

THESE OPINIONS ARE MY OWN AND HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH MY EMPLOYER AND CURRENT JOB

I just read a very interesting article entitled “‘Big science’, big hype, big mistake” by Bill Amos and I would like to add my two cents.

“funding bodies seem ever more impressed by shiny big projects coupled with glamorous promises rather than realistic chances of finding out anything useful”

This reminds me of an article I had written at the end of my PhD, a few years ago now, in a major Greek newspaper, whose translation you can find here. Academics are desperately trying to find out what could be the next big “sexy” thing (the phrase I repeatedly heard back then) so that they can adapt to it, so that they can ensure that their funding will continue. The realisation that being a scientist today involves more of this search rather than the search for knowledge/scientific advancement shook the foundations of my (admittedly too idealistic) belief in science (and this was the main reason I decided I did not want to be a researcher). We have currently an arms race: scientists are trying to think of more and more glamorous (to use Bill Amos’s phrase) projects and funding bodies want to fund more and more of such shiny projects and the bar keeps rising (when will it stop?).

My idealism in science did not disappear completely, so at the end of my PhD I moved on the “other side”, the science policy side. The big change for me was, however, that I moved from the general field of biology to the general field of physics. In Biology most projects are comparatively small (the flowers in the garden that will die in Bill Amos’s metaphor), in Astroparticle Physics infrastructures cost from a hundreds of thousands of euros to billions of euros (the equivalent garden would contain a few big trees and some flowers around nonethless). Do the physicists need such Big Science projects? With my limited knowledge of the field, I would say yes. Do biologists need to scale up their research to similar levels to astroparticle physicists? I would say no. Not all disciplines are the same, we should not be doing copy pasting when funding science is concerned. In the same way that one expects scientists to think in their work, politicians should be doing the equivalent thinking.

“Heads of groups typically add their names to all papers, so the heads of larger groups inevitably appear more productive (and more fundable) than those of smaller groups. This effect is then exaggerated by self-citation because more authors equal more citations.”

In Biology most papers are still written by few authors, in Astroparticle Physics you have hundreds of authors. Thinking of the phrase quoted above, does this mean that the latter are more productive scientists than the former? NO!

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One thought on “A (probable) effect of investments on “sexy” #BigScience projects

  1. I think I disagree. In my experience there are as many of the smaller physics based research projects as there are in biosciences. Likewise there are as many large scale e.g. omics related science projects in biosciences as there are in e.g. astroparticle physics. For every CERN consortium there is a small lab based or theoretical small collaboration. So I think it would be a mistake to think it was all one way in physics based and the other in biosciences. An example of this is the organisation on large scales for major mission astronomy missions such as an international satellite observatory versus the many smaller astronomy projects making use of a general use facility such as a telescope. I would agree that the balance has moved further towards larger projects in both physics and biosciences. The danger is that much of the most innovative research comes out of the long tail of smaller projects but with a higher “failure” rate perhaps. In fact they need infrastructure more than the larger projects who can provide their own, but this is in danger of being neglected if all funnelled through major missions and facilities?

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