Decision-making for big physics

Big science is largely dominant in many areas of science — for example, high-energy physics, medical research, the human genome project, and pandemic research. Other areas of science still function well in a “small science” framework — mathematics, evolutionary biology, or social psychology, for example, with a high degree of decentralized decision-making by individual researchers, universities, and laboratories. But in areas where scientific research requires vast investments of public funds over decades, we are forced to ask a hugely important question: Can governmental agencies act rationally and intelligently in planning for investments in “big science”?

Consider the outcome we would like to see: adoption of a well-funded and well-coordinated multi-investigator, multi-institutional, multi-year research effort well designed to achieve important scientific results. This is the ideal result. What is required in order to make it a reality? Here are the key activities of information-gathering and decision-making that are needed in order to arrive at a successful national agenda for an area of big-science research.

  1. selection of one or more research strategies that have the best likelihood of bringing about important scientific results
  2. a budgeting process and series of decisions that make these strategies feasible
  3. implementation of a multi-year plan (often over multiple research sites) implementing the chosen strategy
  4. oversight and management of the scientific research sites and expenditures to ensure that the strategy is faithfully carried out by talented scientists, researchers, and directors

In A New Social Ontology of Government: Consent, Coordination, and Authority I argue that governments, agencies, and large private organizations have a great deal of difficulty in carrying out large, extended plans. There I highlight principal-agent problems, conflicting priorities across sub-groups, faulty information sharing, and loose coupling within a large organization as some of the primary sources of dysfunction within a large organization (including a national government or large governmental agency). And it is apparent that all of these sources of dysfunction are present in the process of designing, funding, and managing a national science agenda.

Consider item 1 above: selection of a research strategy for scientific research. At any given time in the development of a field of research there is a body of theory and experimental findings that constitute what is currently known; there are experts (scientists) who have considered judgments about what the most important unanswered questions are, and what technologies or experimental investments would be most productive in illuminating those questions; and there are influential figures within government and industry who have preferences and beliefs about the direction that future research ought to take. 

Suppose government has created an agency — call it the Office of High Energy Physics — which is charged to arrive at a plan for future directions and funding for research in the field of high energy physics. (There is in fact the Office of High Energy Physics located within the Department of Energy which has approximately this responsibility. But here I am considering a hypothetical agency.) How should the director and senior staff of OHEP proceed? 

They will recognize that they need rigorous and developed analysis from a group of senior physicists. The judgments of the best physicists in the national research and university community are surely the best (though fallible) source of guidance about the direction that future physics research should take. So OHEP constitutes a permanent committee of advisors who are tasked to assess the current state of the field and arrive at a consensus view of the most productive direction for future investments in high-energy physics research.

The Standing Scientific Committee is not a decision-making committee, however; rather, it prepares reports and advice for the senior staff and director of OHEP. And the individuals who make up the senior staff themselves have been selected for having a reasonable level of scientific expertise; further, they have their own “pet” projects and ideas about what topics are likely to be the most important. So the senior staff and the Standing Committee are in a complex relationship with each other. The Standing Scientific Committee collectively has greater intellectual authority in the scientific field; many are Nobel-quality physicists. But the senior staff have greater influence on the decisions that the Office makes about strategies and future plans. The staff are always there, whereas the Standing Committee does its work episodically. Moreover, the senior staff has an ability to influence the deliberations of the Standing Committee in a variety of ways, including setting the agenda of the Standing Committee, giving advice about the likelihood of funding of various possible strategies, and so forth. Finally, it is worth noting that a group of twenty senior physicists from a range of institutions throughout the country are likely to have interests of their own that will find their way into the deliberations, leading to disagreements about priorities. In short, the process of designing a plan for the next ten years of investments in high-energy physics research is not a purely rational and scientific exercise; it is also a process in which interests, influence, and bureaucratic manipulation play crucial roles.

Now turn to item 2 above, the budgeting issue. Decisions about funding of fundamental scientific research result from a political, legislative, and bureaucratic process. Congressional committees will be involved in the decision whether to allocate $5 billion, $10 billion, or $15 billion in high-energy physics research in the coming decade. And Congressional committees have their own sources of bias and dysfunction: legislators’ political interests in their districts, relationships with powerful industries and lobbyists, and ideological beliefs that legislators bring to their work. These political and economic interests may influence the legislative funding process to favor one strategy over another — irrespective of the scientific merits of the alternatives. (If one strategy brings more investment to the home state of a powerful Senator, this may tilt the funding decision accordingly.) Further, the system of Congressional staff work can be further analyzed in terms of the interests and priorities of the senior staffers doing the work — leading once again to the likelihood that funding decisions will be based on considerations other than the scientific merits of various strategies for research. (Recall the debacle of Congressional influence on the Osprey VTOL aircraft development process.) 

Items 3 and 4 introduce a new set of possible dysfunctions into the process, through the likelihood of principal-agent problems across research sites. Directors of the National Laboratories (like Fermilab or Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, for example) have their own interests and priorities, and they have a fairly wide range of discretion in decisions about implementation of national research priorities. So securing coordination of research efforts across laboratories and research sites introduces another source of uncertainty in the implementation and execution of a national strategy for physics research. This is an instance of “loose coupling”, a factor that has led organizational theorists to come to expect a fair degree of divergence across the large network of sub-organizations that make up the national research system. Thomas Hughes considers these kinds of problems in Rescuing Prometheus: Four Monumental Projects That Changed the Modern Worldlink

These observations do not imply that rational science policy is impossible; but they do underline the difficulties that arise within normal governmental and private institutions that interfere with the idealized process of selection and implementation of an optimal strategy of scientific research. The colossal failure of the Superconducting Super Collider — a multi-billion dollar project in high-energy physics that was abandoned in 1993 after many years of development and expenditure — illustrates the challenges that national science planning encounters (link). Arguably, one might hold that the focus at Fermilab on neutrino detection is another failure (DUNE) — not because it was not implemented, but because it fails the test of making possible fundamental new discoveries in physics.Several interdisciplinary fields take up questions like these, including Science and Technology Studies and Social Construction of Technology studies. Hackett, Amsterdamska, Lynch, and Wajcman’s Handbook of Science and Technology Studies provides a good exposure to the field. Here is a prior post that attempts to locate big science within an STS framework. And here is a post on STS insights into science policy during the Cold War (link).

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