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).

STS and big science

A previous post noted the rapid transition in the twentieth century from small physics (Niels Bohr) to large physics (Ernest Lawrence). How should we understand the development of scientific knowledge in physics during this period of rapid growth and discovery?

One approach is through the familiar methods and narratives of the history of science. Researchers in the history of science generally approach the discipline from the point of view of discovery, intellectual debate, and the progress of scientific knowledge. David Cassidy’s book  Beyond Uncertainty: Heisenberg, Quantum Physics, and The Bomb is sharply focused on the scientific and intellectual debates in which Heisenberg was immersed during the development of quantum theory. His book is fundamentally a narrative of intellectual discovery. Cassidy also takes on the moral-political issue of serving a genocidal state as a scientist; but this discussion has little to do with the history of science that he offers. Peter Galison is a talented and imaginative historian of science, and he asks penetrating questions about how to explain the advent of important new scientific ideas. His treatment of Einstein’s theory of relativity in Einstein’s Clocks and Poincare’s Maps: Empires of Time, for example, draws out the importance of the material technology of clocks and the intellectual influences that flowed through the social networks in which Einstein was engaged for Einstein’s basic intuitions about space and time. But Galison too is primarily interested in telling a story about the origins of intellectual innovation.

It is of course valuable to have careful research studies of the development of science from the point of view of the intellectual context and concepts that influenced discovery. But fundamentally this approach leaves largely unexamined the difficult challenge: how do social, economic, and political institutions shape the direction of science?

The interdisciplinary field of science, technology, and society studies (STS) emerged in the 1970s as a sociological discipline that looked at laboratories, journals, and universities as social institutions, with their own interests, conflicts, and priorities. Hackett, Amsterdamska, Lynch, and Wajcman’s Handbook of Science and Technology Studies provides a good exposure to the field. The editors explain that they consulted widely across researchers in the field, and instead of a unified and orderly “discipline” they found many cross-cutting connections and concerns.

What emerged instead is a multifaceted interest in the changing practices of knowledge production, concern with connections among science, technology, and various social institutions (the state, medicine, law, industry, and economics more generally), and urgent attention to issues of public participation, power, democracy, governance, and the evaluation of scientific knowledge, technology, and expertise. (kl 98)

The guiding idea of STS is that science is a socially situated human activity, embedded within sets of social and political relations and driven by a variety of actors with diverse interests and purposes. Rather than imagining that scientific knowledge is the pristine product of an impersonal and objective “scientific method” pursued by selfless individuals motivated solely by the search for truth, the STS field works on the premise that the institutions and actors within the modern scientific and technological system are unavoidably influenced by non-scientific interests. These include commercial interests (corporate-funded research in the pharmaceutical industry), political interests (funding agencies that embody the political agendas of the governing party), military interests (research on fields of knowledge and technological development that may have military applications), and even ideological interests (Lysenko’s genetics and Soviet ideology). All of these different kinds of influence are evident in Hiltzik’s account in Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex of the evolution of the Berkeley Rad Lab, described in the earlier post.

In particular, individual scientists must find ways of fitting their talents, imagination, and insight into the institutions through which scientific research proceeds: universities, research laboratories, publication outlets, and sources of funding. And Hiltzik’s book makes it very clear that a laboratory like the Radiation Lab that Lawrence created at the University of California-Berkeley must be crafted and designed in a way that allows it to secure the funds, equipment, and staff that it needs to carry forward the process of fundamental research, discovery, and experimentation that the researchers and the field of high-energy physics wished to conduct.

STS scholars sometimes sum up these complex social processes of institutions, organizations, interests, and powers leading to scientific and technological discovery as the “social construction of technology” (SCOT). And, indeed, both the course of physics and the development of the technologies associated with advanced physics research were socially constructed — or guided, or influenced — throughout this extended period of rapid advancement of knowledge. The investments that went into the Rad Lab did not go into other areas of potential research in physics or chemistry or biology; and of course this means that there were discoveries and advances that were delayed or denied as a result. (Here is a recent post on the topic of social influences on the development of technology; link.)

The question of how decisions are made about major investments in scientific research programs (including laboratories, training, and cultivation of new generations of science) is a critically important one. In an idealized way one would hope for a process in which major multi-billion dollar and multi-decade investments in specific research programs would be made in a rational way, incorporating the best judgments and advice of experts in the relevant fields of science. One of the institutional mechanisms through which national science policy is evaluated and set is the activity of the National Academy of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) and similar expert bodies (link). In physics the committees of the American Physical Society are actively engaged in assessing the present and future needs of the fundamental science of the discipline (link). And the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health have well-defined protocols for peer assessment of research proposals. So we might say that science investment and policy in the US have a reasonable level of expert governance. (Here is an interesting status report on declining support for young scientists in the life sciences in the 1990s from an expert committee commissioned by NASEM (link). This study illustrates the efforts made by learned societies to assess the progress of research and to recommend policies that will be needed for future scientific progress.)

But what if the institutions through which these decisions are made are decidedly non-expert and bureaucratized — Congress or the Department of Energy, for example, in the case of high-energy physics? What if the considerations that influence decisions about future investments are importantly directed by political or economic interests (say, the economic impact of future expansion of the Fermilab on the Chicago region)? What if companies that provide the technologies underlying super-conductor electromagnets needed for one strategy but not another are able to influence the decision in their favor? What are the implications for the future development of physics and other areas of science of these forms of non-scientific influence? (The decades-long case of the development of the V-22 Osprey aircraft is a case in point, where pressures on members of Congress from corporations in their districts led to the continuation of the costly project long after the service branches concluded it no longer served the needs of the services; link.)

Research within the STS field often addresses these kinds of issues. But so do researchers in organizational studies who would perhaps not identify themselves as part of the STS field. There is a robust tradition within sociology itself on the sociology of science. Robert Merton was a primary contributor with his book The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations (link). In organizational sociology Jason Owen-Smith’s recent book Research Universities and the Public Good: Discovery for an Uncertain Future provides an insightful analysis of how research universities function as environments for scientific and technological research (link). And many other areas of research within contemporary organizational studies are relevant as well to the study of science as a socially constituted process. A good example of recent approaches in this field is Richard Scott and Gerald Davis, Organizations and Organizing: Rational, Natural and Open Systems Perspectives.

The big news for big science this week is the decision by CERN’s governing body to take the first steps towards establishment of the successor to the Large Hadron Collider, at an anticipated cost of 21 billion euros (link). The new device would be an electron-positron collider, with a plan to replace it later in the century with a proton-proton collider. Perhaps naively, I am predisposed to think that CERN’s decision-making and priority-setting processes are more fully guided by scientific consensus than is the Department of Energy’s decision-making process. However, it would be very helpful to have in-depth analysis of the workings of CERN, given the key role that it plays in the development of high-energy physics today. Here is an article in Nature reporting efforts by social-science observers like Arpita Roy, Knorr Cetina, and John Krige to arrive at a more nuanced understanding of the decision-making processes at work within CERN (link).

Social factors driving technology

In a recent post I addressed the question of how social and political circumstances influence the direction of technological change (link). There I considered Thomas Hughes’s account of the development of electric power as a “socio-technological system”. Robert Pool’s 1997 book Beyond Engineering: How Society Shapes Technology is a synthetic study that likewise gives primary attention to the important question of how society shapes technology. He too highlights the importance of the “sociotechnical system” within which a technology emerges and develops:

Instead, I learned, one must look past the technology to the broader “sociotechnical system” — the social, political, economic, and institutional environments in which the technology develops and operates. The United States, France, and Italy provided very different settings for their nuclear technologies, and it shows. (kl 86)

Any modern technology, I found, is the product of a complex interplay between its designers and the larger society in which it develops. (kl 98)

Furthermore, a complex technology generally demands a complex organization to develop, build, and operate it, and these complex organizations create yet more difficulties and uncertainty. As we’ll see in chapter 8, organizational failures often underlie what at first seem to be failures of a technology. (kl 1890)

For all these reasons, modern technology is not simply the rational product of scientists and engineers that it is often advertised to be. Look closely at any technology today, from aircraft to the Internet, and you’ll find that it truly makes sense only when seen as part of the society in which it grew up. (kl 153)

Pool emphasizes the importance of social organization and large systems in the processes of technological development:

Meanwhile, the developers of technology have also been changing. A century ago, most innovation was done by individuals or small groups. Today, technological development tends to take place inside large, hierarchical organizations. This is particularly true for complex, large-scale technologies, since they demand large investments and extensive, coordinated development efforts. But large organizations inject into the development process a host of considerations that have little or nothing to do with engineering. Any institution has its own goals and concerns, its own set of capabilities and weaknesses, and its own biases about the best ways to do things. Inevitably, the scientists and engineers inside an institution are influenced — often quite unconsciously — by its culture.

There are a number of obvious ways in which social circumstances influence the creation and development of various technologies. For example:

  1. the availability of technical expertise through the educational system
  2. the ways in which consumer tastes are created, shaped, and expressed in the economic system
  3. the ways in which political interests of government are expressed through research funding, legislation, and command
  4. the imperatives of national security and defense (World War II => radar, sonar, operations research, digital computers, cryptography, atomic bomb, rockets and jet aviation, …)
  5. The needs of corporations and industry for technological change, supported by industry laboratories and government research funding
  6. The development of complex systems of organization of projects and efforts in pursuit of a goal including the efforts of thousands of participants

Factors like these influence the direction of technology in a variety of ways. The first factor mentioned here has to do with the infrastructure needed to create expertise and instrumentation in science and engineering. The discovery of radar would have been impossible without preexisting expertise in radio technology and materials at MIT and elsewhere; the rapid development of atomic fission for reactors and weapons depended crucially on the availability of advanced expertise in physics, chemistry, materials, and instrumentation; and so on for virtually all the technologies that have transformed the world in the past seventy years. We might describe this as defining the “supply” side of technological change. Along with manufacturing and fabrication expertise, the availability of advanced engineering knowledge and research is a necessary condition for the development of new advanced technology.

The demand side of technological development is represented by the next several bullets. Clearly, in a market society the consumer tastes and wants of the public have a great deal of effect on the development of technology. Smart phones were difficult to imagine prior to the launch of the iPhone in 2007; and if there had been only limited demand for a device that takes photos and videos, plays music, makes phone calls, surfs the internet, and maintains email communication, the device would not have undergone the intensive development that it actually experienced. Many apparently “useful” consumer devices never find a space in the development and marketing process that allow them to come to maturity.

The development of the Internet illustrates the third and fourth items listed here. ARPANET was originally devised as a system of military and government communication. Advanced research in computer science and information theory was taking place during the 1960s, but without the stimulus of the government-funded Advanced Projects Research Agency and sponsorship by the Defense Communications Agency it is doubtful that the Internet would have developed — or would have developed with the characteristics it now possesses.

The fifth item, describing the needs and incentives experienced by industry and corporations guiding their efforts at technology innovation, has clearly played a major role in the development of technology in the past half century as well. Consider agribusiness and the pursuit by companies like Monsanto to gain exclusive intellectual property rights in seed lines and genetically engineered crops. These business interests stimulate research by companies in this industry towards discovery of intellectual property that can be applied to technological change in agriculture — for the purpose of generating profits for the agribusiness corporation. Here is a brief description of this dynamic from the Guardian (link):

Monsanto, which has won its case against Bowman in lower courts, vociferously disagrees. It argues that it needs its patents in order to protect its business interests and provide a motivation for spending millions of dollars on research and development of hardier, disease-resistant seeds that can boost food yields.

Why are there no foot-pump devices for evacuating blood during surgery — an urgent need in developing countries where electric power is uncertain and highly expensive devices are difficult to acquire? The answer is fairly obvious: no medical-device company has a profit-based incentive to produce a device which will yield a profit of pennies. Therefore “sustainable technology” in support of healthcare in poor countries does not get developed. (Here are examples of technology innovations that would be helpful in rural healthcare in high-poverty countries that market-driven forces are never likely to develop; link.)

The final item mentioned above complements the first — the development of business organization systems parallels the development of systems of expertise and training at universities. Engineering, operations research, and organizational theory all progressed dramatically in the twentieth century, and the ways that they took shape influenced the direction and characteristics of the technologies that were developed. Thomas Hughes describes these complex systems of government, university, and business organizations in Rescuing Prometheus, a book that emphasizes the systems requirements of both engineering as a profession and the large organizations through which technologies are developed and managed. Particularly interesting are the examples of the SAGE early warning system and the ARPANET; in each case Hughes argues that these technologies could not have been accomplished without the creation of new frameworks of systems engineering and systems organization.

MIT assumed this special responsibility [of public service] wholeheartedly when it became the system builder for the SAGE Project (Semiautomatic Ground Environment), a computer-and radar-based air defense system created in the 1950s. The SAGE Project presents an unusual example of a university working closely with the military on a large-scale technological project during its design and development, with industry active in a secondary role. SAGE also provides an outstanding instance of system builders synthesizing organizational and technical innovation. It is as well an instructive case of engineers, managers, and scientists taking a systems and transdisciplinary approach. (15)

It is clear from these considerations and examples, that technologies do not develop according to their own internal technical logic. Instead, they are invented, developed, and built out as the result of dozens of influences that are embodied in the social, economic, and political environment in which they emerge. And though neither Hughes nor Pool identifies directly with the researchers in the fields of the Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) and Science, Technology, and Society studies (STS), their findings converge to a substantial extent with the central ideas of those approaches. (Here are some earlier discussions of that approach; linklinklink). Technology is socially embedded.

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