Vivek Haldar

Big science funding

In The Crisis of Big Science, Steven Weinberg describes how basic science is getting bigger and bigger, and now requires vast amounts of funding, often from public entities such as Congress that understand neither the technology nor the value of it.

It looks like the bottleneck for advancing science is now not so much the presence of brilliant brains, but the presence of an advocate with charm and clout and connections, who can coax funding out of reluctant public bodies, and then charm them over many years while the project continues.

But even when such a person is at the helm, funding is always a struggle. Weinberg is pessimistic about public funding of big science in general:

What really motivates elementary particle physicists is a sense of how the world is ordered—it is, they believe, a world governed by simple universal principles that we are capable of discovering. But not everyone feels the importance of this. During the debate over the SSC, I was on the Larry King radio show with a congressman who opposed it. He said that he wasn’t against spending on science, but that we had to set priorities. I explained that the SSC was going to help us learn the laws of nature, and I asked if that didn’t deserve a high priority. I remember every word of his answer. It was “No.”

What does motivate legislators is the immediate economic interests of their constituents. Big laboratories bring jobs and money into their neighborhood, so they attract the active support of legislators from that state, and apathy or hostility from many other members of Congress. Before the Texas site was chosen, a senator told me that at that time there were a hundred senators in favor of the SSC, but that once the site was chosen the number would drop to two. He wasn’t far wrong. We saw several members of Congress change their stand on the SSC after their states were eliminated as possible sites.

I was hoping he would also delve into some alternative models for funding big science. He proposes raising taxes, but that itself is another political battle. Perhaps the X Foundation and its quest to move space exploration forward with private funds is one model.