Saturday, January 17, 2009

Centralization of Science

Aaron E. Hirsh has an interesting column about the centralization of science. He thinks science is becoming more centralized in the hands of a few large institutions
Across many different fields, new data are generated by a smaller and smaller number of bigger and bigger projects. And with this process of centralization come changes in what scientists measure — and even in what scientists are.
and his primary example is the Large Hadron Collider.

It is clear that this is going on in particle physics, as experiments become much bigger and more expensive. But I disagree that it is realistic to think this is going on in all disciplines. He does cite the few number of institutions for example consulted for information on CO2 levels, or for mapping genomes, but he doesn't actually point to any trend of fewer institutions now than there used to be, in fact I think there is expansion going on. The cost of mapping a single human genome has been dropping rapidly since we first began trying to do it, and it is anticipated to continue to the point where things are like in the movie Gattaca, and companies and individuals can afford their own automated instant genome readers.

Genetics is a thriving area of scientific research for this reason, whereas particle physics, sorry to say, is not. Physics thrived in the nineteenth century as thermodynamics was the hot topic, and then in the early twentieth century elementary particle physics was the new hot topic and a whole slew of great scientists worked side by side: Einstein, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Bohr, Paui, and on and on. The problem was it got more expensive to do empirical research and larger and larger particle accelerators became necessary. There are dramatic increases in costs from Galileo rolling balls down hills to Count Rumford measuring the heat produced in cannon boring, to building a 17 miles particle accelerator to see a Higgs Boson particle. Nowadays, discoveries in areas more like genetics, psychology and medicine are showing up in newspapers more frequently and are sources of considerable discovery. Its because physics is subject more to the trend of centralization than these other fields. Decentralization makes for more fertile science.

Hirsh's antidote to the centralization trends is "Citizen Science," which is data collection by vast numbers of individuals consolidated into large databases, generally facilitated by the internet. Here Hirsh is really onto something, and this trend is already beginning to happen, in many fields. It may be hard to imagine how might expand Citizen Science into a a field like particle physics, but with other fields that have tended to centralize, like astronomy and climate research I think there is potential. Lots of people have miniature weather stations, lots of people have telescopes, just a matter of collecting the information and consolidating it. I agree with Hirsh that Citizen Science will probably become a big part of scientific research in the future, especially in certain areas of research that are more amenable to this type of data collection. And this will further foster greater scientific advancement.

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