Guest Editorial: Big Science versus Small Science - ACS Publications

Guest Editorial: Big Science versus Small Science - ACS E Young...

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Big Science versus Small Science A

scan of the table of contents page of any typical journal will reveal that there is a continuing upswing of collaborative research. The numbers of authors, institutions, and funding agencies acknowledged per article are clear evidence of the trend. Gone are the days of the lonely, “mad” scientist working out of the garage. Science has gotten to be so intricate that single-author inventions are now met with skepticism. There is some truth in the assumption that all that can be discovered easily has been discovered. On the other hand, collaborative research, especially along interdisciplinary lines, is relatively unexplored. If something has been discovered previously, one might still be able to apply that to a different scientific discipline with a new twist. This is not unlike the proliferation of hyphenated analytical techniques. But while publications and instrument sales can be generated multiplicatively in this manner, advances are generally very much evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Genuine collaborative research requires true partnership among the participants. It is insufficient to just add as coauthors the names of colleagues who have been involved in some level of discussion on the project. It is also a stretch to refer to results from separated laboratories that are subsequently combined. The key element is the added value—the whole is more than the sum of its parts. There has to be a push–pull effort on both sides. It is not surprising that shared graduate and postdoctoral students are the cornerstones of successful collaborations. Collaborative research has been driven by big-science themes, such as the Manhattan Project, Sputnik, the Human Genome Project, and nanoscience and technology. Funding agencies have encouraged group proposals with programs such as science and technology centers, glue grants, and core facilities. Although some may be suspicious of “selling out” scientific minds to “trendy” themes, others have thrived with these special opportunities to interact with colleagues who were once scientific strangers. The Human Genome Project, for one, has pulled together the diverse communities of chemistry, biology, and computational science.

Big science is culture-specific among various fields. The search for elementary particles has always been a major focus of experimental physics. It is noteworthy that over the years, most physicists agree as to what particle should be pursued next and what new accelerator should be built. The astronomers go as far as listing their top 10 important research topics, with the implication being that all other investigations are simply not as worthwhile. Yet, theoretical concepts have invariably come from single investigators. The relativistic framework of Albert Einstein or Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s last theorem required a single, focused train of thought that would have been interrupted by collaboration. Chemistry is typically a small-science endeavor. This includes large teams working on the total synthesis of a natural product, in which the many steps are merely divided up among small groups of similarly trained co-workers. In these days when research spending has to be accountable to the general public, is there room for small science? Sure! Even within the huge umbrella of the Human Genome Project, it is clear that small laboratories invented linear polymer solutions and fancy optics that enabled high-throughput DNA sequencing. Then, there are the MS concepts that were cited for the latest Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Those early workers obviously did not have proteomics in mind. However, their contributions were instantly elevated in visibility by the emergence of the big-science theme of proteomics. Analytical chemistry is traditionally a small science but inherently a diverse discipline. It is likely to be adaptable to any big-science theme that may come along. It is therefore a natural interface between big science and small science.

Edward Yeung Iowa State University/Ames Laboratory [email protected]

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