Big Science and Collective Research

Although Big Science is a rather nebulous term, most commentators have used it to describe an array of perceived changes in science and scientific practice during and after World War II. Following Alvin Weinberg’s Reflections on Big Science, the term has often been associated with the rise of a military industrial government academic complex, the use/production of huge machines, the investment of massive resources, and the growth of large techno scientific organizations. As such, Big Science is often compared against a pre war Little Science, usually characterized by lone or heroic scientists (typically, a Thomas Edison or Albert Einstein type figure) working in their makeshift laboratory. Yet large scale science is not a twentieth century phenomenon. Astronomy, for example, modeled itself on the factory system during the nineteenth century, with an increase in the hierarchical division of labor and a focus on large scale, mission oriented projects. These developments coincided with increased funding (mainly philanthropic) and the construction of ever larger telescopes, upon which the field of inquiry came to depend.

Nonetheless, the Manhattan Project, which brought together resources and labor power on an unprecedented scale to produce the first atomic bomb, often serves as the symbol for the beginnings of Big Science. Because of this, many commentators have seen technology as the driving force behind Big Science. The use of big machines, huge scientific instruments, and/or complicated technological systems have necessitated large systems of organization and control, which in turn have required industrial scale inputs of labor and capital: a pattern that led some observers to claim Big Science as the industrialization of research, or what Paul Zilsel called the emergence of ”think factories.” In Scientific Knowledge and Its Social Problems (1972), Jerome Ravetz argued that the industrialization of science has meant that pure science now involved increasing capitalization, which necessitated a structural division of labor between scientists and their industrial managers.

Because of the huge resources needed to fund it and because of its size, many commentators have viewed Big Science as an inherently political activity (as opposed to a supposedly apolitical Little Science), which is embroiled in bureaucratic and national politics. The growth and growing influence of government laboratories (particularly after the Manhattan Project) on science development, the creation of the idea of science as a ”public good,” and the coming together of government and private capital to serve sociopolitical ambitions and  goals of national importance led many to question the autonomy of Big Science. Like Ravetz, Wein berg had witnessed the rise of the science administrator with some trepidation and argued that Big Science’s requirement for both state and industrial support was skewing science away from the ”quest for truth” towards a market conscious, product oriented, capital intensive activity that has taken on the impersonal nature of industrial enterprise. From this perspective, the trend towards technological goals rather than scientific understanding is a corruption of science by government and corporate interests.

The entanglement of science and politics, while evident in all industrialized countries, was especially so in the old Soviet Union. Soviet science was distributed into what Graham (1992) termed three gigantic pyramids: the university system, the academy of sciences system, and the industrial and defense ministry system. After the 1917 revolution the Soviets organized science into large centralized institutes, with the Academy of Sciences as the leading center of basic/fundamental research. While the State Planning Commission of the Council of Ministers determined the budgets for each of the three pyramids, they all had relative autonomy, though very powerful leaders dominated each. After World War II, Big Science took on a whole different character when the Soviet Union began construction of large ”science cities” that housed thousands of scientists and researchers all working in close proximity on large state oriented projects, such as space and nuclear weapons.

The most renowned analysis on Big Science is probably Derek de Solla Price’s Little Science, Big Science (1963). Price was less concerned with the condition of science than he was with charting its historical growth. Using statistical data on increasing numbers of scientists and scientific papers, Price demonstrated the ”first law” of scientific growth: that science had maintained a general exponential growth for 300 years, doubling in size every 15 years. For Price, Big Science was a stage in the historical development of science: a point between Little Science and the start of an epoch of New Science. Although Price did not define the detailed nature of this change, he did state that the exponential growth of science could not continue indefinitely, that it must reach saturation. With saturation and an exhausting of resources came the onset of new conditions, where centuries of tradition would break down, giving rise to new escalations, redefinitions of basic terms, and beginning to operate with new ground rules. According to Price, Big Science showed ”all the familiar syndromes of saturation.”

Other observers have noted that the ever increasing dimensions of science have brought with it new sets of problems. Scientific credibility becomes harder to earn, not because scientists today are any less competent, but simply because there are more of them. Research under Little Science (so the argument goes) was more open to critical scrutiny because of a smaller audience, but under Big Science it is more likely that the research will go unread once it enters the deluge of information over load. Coupled with this is the problem that fewer people are eligible to dispute a given knowledge claim (both because of specialization and because of the high expense of reproducing experiments), while simultaneously these claims are playing a greater role in legitimating policies, actions, and events. In addition, the increased government reliance on science to underwrite its activities is also leading to the long term tendency for Big Science to become a more acute instrument of political power as its sphere of accountability diminishes.


  1. Capshew, J. & Rader, K. (1992) Big Science: Price to the Present. Osiris 2(7): 2-25.
  2. Fuller, S. (2000) The Governance of Science: Ideology and the Future of the Open Society. Open University Press, Buckingham.
  3. Graham, L. (1992) Big Science in the Last Years of the Big Soviet Union. Osiris 2(7): 49-71.

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