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The atomic bomb's Big Science legacy

30 April 2018
Khia Kurtenbach

Khia Kurtenbach

Khia Kurtenbach is a senior at the University of Chicago, majoring in Molecular Engineering. She wrote this essay for “The Nuclear Age,” a class taught by Deborah Nelson in the Department of...


The Manhattan Project was the first instance of “Big Science,” as Oak Ridge National Laboratory director Alvin M. Weinberg famously called it in 1961 in the journal Science. Large-scale scientific research, consisting of projects usually funded by national governments, is now exemplified by US Energy Department national labs, the Human Genome Project, NASA, and many other modern endeavors. The research paradigm in the nuclear age revolves around behemoth initiatives that require massive amounts of human capital and funding.

While this paradigm has in many ways altered research for the better, there are drawbacks to Big Science. Harnessing the full power of science to tackle today’s biggest challenges, such as climate change and antibiotic resistance, will require striking the right balance between Big and Little Science.


A genome sequence trace from the US Energy Department’s Human Genome Program

Building the bomb. The development of the atomic bomb changed the model of scientific research projects. Physicists and chemists, because of their usefulness in weapons development, were valued by their countries’ governments in war efforts. In pursuit of an atomic bomb and other military technologies, governments pumped unprecedented amounts of money into scientific research. The US government spent an estimated $2 billion (more than $20 billion in 2018 dollars) on researching and developing the first atomic bomb. At an unparalleled scale, individual researchers, lab groups, and countries collaborated to develop the bomb. Researchers behind the bomb hailed from countries around the world—including the United Kingdom, Austria, and Hungary—and an estimated 130,000 people were involved.

The Manhattan Project showed that Big Science initiatives can result in a successful joining of theoretical science and technological innovation, and can also lead to advances in fields such as energy production and biomedical science. For example, researchers involved in the Manhattan Project developed technology now used for chemotherapy.

The US Energy Department and its national laboratories are a direct outgrowth of the Manhattan Project. The 17 labs are dedicated to addressing “large scale, complex research and development challenges with a multidisciplinary approach that places an emphasis on translating basic science to innovation.” Although the labs vary in size, they are for the most part centered on big, expensive machines, such as particle accelerators and nuclear reactors. The Energy Department’s fiscal year 2018 budget provides $6.3 billion for the Office of Science, which includes the national lab system—a 16 percent increase over last year.

These labs maintain staff and researchers, with scientists from local universities, private companies, and institutions from around the world visiting the labs to conduct experiments. With their centralization of human capital, funding, and other resources, the national lab system is a modern-day example of Big Science.

Widespread influence. The building of the atomic bomb influenced all science disciplines; research in many fields is now connected to Big Science initiatives. While small groups or independent researchers may contribute to theoretical results, large-scale projects and collaborations are important in fields as varied as genomics, epidemiology, robotics, and artificial intelligence. The Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy (a collaboration between six US leading cancer centers) and NASA’s Apollo moon landing are two examples of Big Science initiatives that resemble the Manhattan Project in scale. Labs today are not typically small-scale operations, but rather institutions that employ hundreds of people.

Big Science has many benefits. Big budgets and resources allow scientists to dream big. The concentration of funding within one location or organization makes it possible to build huge, expensive machines and facilities that many individual scientists can then use. Additionally, Big Science fosters collaborations across disciplines, and even countries.

But bigger isn’t always better. Big Science also has certain drawbacks that are too often left undiscussed. The system of national labs—or more generally, the idea of Big Science—is more than 70 years old. Consolidation of resources in massive labs does allow for the achievement of otherwise unattainable goals. However, it also has some disadvantages.

Inherently top-down, mega-scale science has the potential to hinder creativity. In Big Science initiatives, high-up scientists and committees decide on a goal to address. Scientists with related expertise are then invited to join the project or use the resources of the initiative. The top-down funding model prevents scientists with innovative ideas, which may not fit neatly into a big initiative’s outlined goals, from pursuing research. Major investment in a limited number of projects necessarily redirects resources away from individual investigators.

In contrast, in the more traditional, bottom-up funding model—notably still at play within university systems—scientists draw up grant proposals based on their own interests and apply for funding from agencies to pursue independent research. This traditional model, “Little Science,” offers a pathway for scientists to receive funding for novel ideas.

Another disadvantage of Big Science is that expensive initiatives and institutions are vulnerable to politics. Because these projects are mainly funded by the federal government, research priorities can shift for political reasons, and productivity can be hindered by bureaucratic red tape. Policy makers, many of whom do not have scientific expertise, often exert influence over Big Science goals and funding. Elected officials, who worry about their constituents’ opinions and campaign donations, may make decisions based on popular but misinformed opinions and on ther special interests of private donors, rather than on scientific fact. The climate change debate, in particular, is an issue that has been governed less by scientific research than by politics and money. Politicians, under pressure from lobbyists and popular opinion, have been unwilling to allocate the necessary funding for solutions to global warming.

Finally, Big Science can have some disadvantages in efficiency. In consortium-style research environments, staff scientists, as well as independent investigators wishing to use facilities, typically require approval from agencies, site officials, and lab managers. Time spent dealing with bureaucracy decreases the time scientists could otherwise spend thinking about, or conducting, experiments.

A balancing act. Today our world faces a variety of issues that will require multidisciplinary collaboration and massive resources to solve. Climate change is one of these problems, but antibiotic resistance, food security as the world’s population grows, and the development of cyber defense systems are other issues that will need more scientific resources going forward.

Science can help solve these major problems, especially when the right balance between Little and Big Science is struck. A combination of both small-scale grants and large-scale projects can bring together the creativity of individual investigators and the infrastructures and resources needed to support these researchers. Improving current scientific research requires considering the weaknesses, as well as the strengths, of Big Science.