Pushing the boundaries of scientific knowledge has become increasingly expensive. In astronomy, that has meant larger telescopes, both on the ground and in space (in addition to increasingly complex planetary probes). In particle physics, it involves a series of larger and more powerful accelerators. However, one Nobel laureate fears that governments’ willingness to fund such ventures may have reached its limit.
Speaking on the topic of “Big Science in Crisis” at the American Astronomical Society conference Monday night in Austin, Texas, Steven Weinberg said he was pessimistic that governments would fund the next step in particle accelerators beyond Europe’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), regardless of the scientific case for it. “It’s going to be a very hard sell, and it may be impossible to get the next accelerator built,” he said.
That pessimism, he said, stems from his experience two decades ago with the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), a large particle accelerator that was already under construction near Dallas when Congress canceled it in 1993. The project, he said, got an “undeserved reputation” for cost overruns and, with a limited constituency for the program within Congress, was vulnerable to being cut.
“Whatever else it is, a large scientific lab is a public works project,” Weinberg said. “It, therefore, will always get enthusiastic support from local politicians, as it [the SSC] did in Texas, and hostility, or at best apathy, form other legislators from other parts of the country.” Weinberg admitted later in his talk that the project compounded its problems by initially relying too much on a single political patron, then Speaker of the House Jim Wright (D-TX), who was forced to resign in 1989 because of a scandal, as well as not doing enough outreach to other members of the House (which led the later effort to cancel the SSC.)
Those issues, along with competition for funding elsewhere in science (another issue that hurt the SSC), remain today. “All of these problems are going to come up again when we go to our governments for the next big accelerator,” he said.
Weinberg says there are similar problems with the future of astronomy, in particular with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). “Its history is somewhat reminiscent of the SSC,” he said. “It’s facing accusations of overspending, but the problem again is that at the funding levels being requested, it’s being stretched out to the point where it’s getting more and more expensive.” Like the SSC, the JWST has a strong Congressional patron, in this case in the form of Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), “but you can’t really rely on it too much.”
Weinberg, who has long been a strident critic of human spaceflight, also brought that up in his talk. “All of the great discoveries that have made such great progress in cosmology in particular have been from unmanned observatories,” he said. “The International Space Station was sold as a scientific laboratory, but nothing interesting has come from it.” He did say the ISS now has “one real science experiment” on the ISS, in the form of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, but that experiment largely runs autonomously from the activities of the station’s crew. He also blamed the ISS in part for the SSC’s demise, as the Clinton Administration elected to advocate for the station’s continuation in Congress, but not the SSC, when both were threatened with cancellation in 1993.
Although Weinberg didn’t menton it, his description of scientific labs as public works projects could also apply to human spaceflight activities: they too have largely local support, with a few key patrons in Congress primarily from districts and states with NASA facilities, while the rest of Congress tends to be apathetic, at best. Interestingly, after his talk Weinberg could be seen chatting with NASA’s new associate administrator for science, John Grunsfeld, a former astronaut best known for his work on several Hubble Space Telescope servicing missions; perhaps he sought to remind him that human spaceflight and astronomy can coexist and even work together.
Weinberg didn’t offer specific solutions to the problems facing big astronomy and physics projects beyond an overall increase in government spending that would provide more funds for those projects without putting them into competition with infrastructure, education, and other priorities. “We mustn’t get into a conflict between science and these many needs of our society. For one thing, we’ll lose,” he said.
Without some kind of change that makes governments more willing to fund big science projects, he concluded, “we may see in the next decade or so an end to the search for the laws of nature which will not be resumed again in our own lifetimes.”