Last month, Bill Amos, professor of evolutionary genetics at the University of Cambridge, wrote an article for Times Higher Education that questioned the wisdom of funding bodies that direct money to huge projects while “starving” the wider science community.
“I am passionate about my discipline but my heart bleeds to see the way British science is being sent inexorably down the pan by the state’s focus on throwing more and more resources at big-budget, industrial-scale data collection,” he wrote.
The discussion caught the attention of a number of researchers on Twitter - in particular, those in the field of astronomy. Brooke Simmons (@vrooje), a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford studying the connection between the growth of supermassive black holes and their host galaxies, described the article as “food for thought”. “In times of scarcity, is big science starving the rest of the scientific community?” she asked.
John Barentine (@johnbarentine), a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Texas at Austin, was also drawn in.
“Is big science really just ‘hype over substance’?” he asked. “This is a conversation that needs to happen.”
Ino Agrafioti, a project manager in the Astroparticle Physics European Consortium, a group of European Union funding bodies that includes the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council, decided to start that conversation on her Scipolicyedu blogs, drawing on some of her own experiences in academia.
“Academics are desperately trying to find out what could be the next big ‘sexy’ thing,” she writes. “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).”
She says that there is an “arms race”, with scientists trying to think of “more and more glamorous projects” and funding bodies wanting “to fund more and more of such shiny projects”: “the bar keeps rising (when will it stop?),” she asks.
Dr Agrafioti goes on to discuss the difficulties of allocating funding to the most worthy projects. “The big change for me was…that I moved from the general field of biology to the general field of physics. In biology most projects are comparatively small…in astroparticle physics, infrastructures cost from…hundreds of thousands of euros to billions.”
But do 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.”
She concludes that not all disciplines are the same and that we should not copy and paste as far as science funding is concerned.
“In the same way that one expects scientists to think in their work, policy makers should be doing the equivalent thinking,” she says. “In biology, most papers are still written by few authors, in astroparticle physics you have hundreds of authors…Does this mean that the latter are more productive scientists than the former? NO!”
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