Big Science: Big Challenges

Director Oddone participated in a recent panel discussion titled "Big Science: Big Challenges" at the Museum of Science and Industry. From left: Steve Edwards, Robert Zimmer, Pier Oddone, Eric Isaacs, Trudy Vincent. Photo: Fermilab

On Thursday evening, the seventh in the series of joint events organized by the University of Chicago, Argonne and Fermilab took place at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. The event brought together scientists, engineers and faculty members of the three institutions. The venue was the museum rotunda, a spectacular setting for an event on big science. After a short introductory video, 300 attendees listened to a vibrant discussion on "Big Science: Big Challenges," followed by many questions from the audience. The moderator, Steve Edwards, who is an experienced journalist, well-known radio host and the current deputy director of the Institute of Politics of the University of Chicago, did a great job moderating the discussion. In addition to myself, the panel included University of Chicago President Bob Zimmer, Argonne Director Eric Isaacs and University Associate VP for Government Relations Trudy Vincent. Each of us brought to the discussion our own individual perspectives on big science and on the current challenges to carry it out.

While there are common characteristics to projects we designate as big science, those projects are diverse. The extreme exponent of big science is the LHC and its major detectors. A project such as CMS, on which we work at Fermilab, brings together thousands of scientists from 140 institutions around the world to work together as a single team on its design, construction, data analysis and physics discoveries. The Human Genome Project also brought together several countries and institutions to produce a common information infrastructure that was then made public and is used by a wide spectrum of groups and individuals. As we push to higher energies in particle physics, to higher intensities in synchrotron light sources, or to larger and more complex data sets in modern biology, the tools we use will require the aggregation of resources on a very large scale. This shared characteristic of big science is what makes it difficult to fund, especially in times of limited resources. While there are many pieces to getting a project funded, one essential element is widespread support.

In discussing how to motivate the public, the White House and Congress to support and fund science—especially big science—President Zimmer reminded the audience that the function of government, as established in the U.S. Constitution, is not to fund science or big science but “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” He then argued that if government is to fund big science, we need to explain the science we want to do not in the narrow context of our fields but in the broader context, established by the Constitution, of the functions of government, including contributing to the nation’s general welfare and to a more perfect Union—undoubtedly, important advice for us all.

A link to the video of the full panel discussion will appear in Fermilab Today when available.