Big Science


‘Big Science’ is an important framework when acquiring knowledge about the Earth as it conceptualizes the large-scale research efforts that are required to learn about our planet and its place in space. As the assembling of knowledge about the inner and outer workings of the earth and its various inhabitants requires an enormous research effort, science on such a grand scale is often referred to as ‘Big Science’.

The origin of Big Science

The term ‘Big Science’ was first used in the US in the early 1960s. The authors Alvin M. Weinberg and Derek de Solla Price introduced the term to refer primarily to the growth and status of science: “The large-scale character of modern science, new and shining and all powerful, is so apparent that the happy term “Big Science” has been coined to describe it” (De Solla Price, 1963: 2).

The growth of science has to be placed in the rapidly modernizing society of the later half of the 20th century when industrialization reached its peak. As many processes in society, science became increasingly industrialized, matching and sometimes exceeding the economical growth rates of the post-war period. As a result science grew ‘big’ in two different ways: “On the one hand, many of the activities of modern science – nuclear physics, or elementary particle physics, or space research – require extremely elaborate equipment and staffs of large teams of professionals; on the other hand, the scientific enterprise, both Little Science and Big Science, has grown explosively and has become very much more complicated” (Weinberg, 1967: 39).

Both trained as physicists, Weinberg and De Solla Price based their observations especially on the development of physics during World War II and its aftermath. Moreover, Weinberg presented the Manhattan Project as the paradigmatic example of ‘Big Science’: an enormous logistical and scientific research effort, encompassing large amounts of people, expertises, money and materials. Furthermore, rockets, superconductors and telescopes grew into incomprehensible proportions. As a result, the classification of ‘Big Science’ was initially reserved for physics and space research as the scientific champions of the 1960s.

Nonetheless, historical research on ‘Big Science’ found the origins of large-scale research efforts much earlier. Historians of science frequently name astronomy with its large telescopes and observatories as the earliest forms of ‘Big Science’ that already began to take shape from the fifteenth century onwards. Moreover, with hindsight the emergence of ‘Big Physics’ is already found in the period between the two world wars when universities and industries cooperated to solve the energy problem in California. Furthermore, it is argued that large-scale science without a central technology but a complex infrastructure may also count as ‘Big Science’, which also includes the grand alliance between science and exploration that came with the mapping of the world.

In sum, ‘Big Science’ has many faces and comes in different shapes and forms. As a result ‘Big Science’ has acquired different meanings over the years.

Defining Big Science

Nowadays numerous definitions on ‘Big Science’ coexist, each highlighting specific aspects of the phenomenon. Roughly, a division between a quantitative and a qualitative perspective on ‘Big Science’ can be made. Following De Solla Price, who is considered one of the founding fathers of scientometrics, some define bigness by numbers. For instance, Sklair equates ‘Big Science’ with: "Money and Manpower” (Sklair, 1973: 15). While Lambright focuses on the amount of money and time: “'Big Science' – large-scale research and development (R&D) programs costing hundreds of millions, even billions, and lasting a decade or more” (Lambright, 1998: 260).

In contrast to this quantitative perspective historians and sociologists of science give a broader view on ‘Big Science’. For instance, historian of physics Peter Galison argues that ‘bigness’ has multiple dimensions: “The big in Big Science connotes expansion on many axes: geographic (in the occupation of science cities or regions), economic (in the sponsorship of major research endeavors now costing in the order of billion dollars), multidisciplinary (in the necessary coordination of teams from previously distinct fields), multinational (in the coordination of groups with very different research styles and traditions)” (Galison, 1992: 2).

Moreover, the notion ‘big’ is put into perspective, as something is only big in relation to something else: “Whether a given project is perceived as big or little science depends on when it is observed, on how it compares to other endeavors within a subfield, and what funding agency it falls under (…) it generally is possible to distinguish between big and little science at a given point in time, in a particular subfield, and within a specific funding agency” (NRC, 1994: 1).

‘Big Science” has not always been viewed as a positive development, but also gave rise to some critical views. For instance, in literature, ‘Big Science’ has been pictured subsequently as a scientific phenomenon, as industrial production, as an instrument, as an institution, as a pathology, as an ethical problem, as culture and even as a form of life. Critical stances towards ‘Big Science’ continue to exist (see below).

Big Science today

Contemporary ‘Big Science’ continues to fit the characteristics of the phenomenon Weinberg, De Solla Price and others refer to, yet a shift has occurred in the topics contemporary ‘Big Science’ addresses. Astronomy and physics have shifted to the background and biology and life sciences have gained ground on them. While the superconductors are still growing and the Hubble Space Telescope can safely be considered ‘Big Science’, nowadays the Human Genome Project has caught the public eye more effectively.

Now that many disciplines have claimed the term ‘Big Science’, differentiation is occurring. What once was simply ‘Big Science’ now additionally is crowned ‘Big Physics’, ‘Big Biology’, ‘Big Pharma’, etc. Each of these is somewhat different from the other, as for instance ‘Big Biology’ does not have a centralizing instrument that equals the superconductor of ‘Big Physics’ and ‘Big Pharma’ not only refers to the research effort of the large pharmaceutical companies, but also denotes their social and financial influence. Concrete examples of contemporary ‘Big Science’ encompass the mapping of human and other genomes, the international space station (ISS), disclosing life in the oceans (Census of Marine Life) and the challenge of global warming. Mostly these efforts are centrally coordinated, but sometimes they lack a clear structure, but can be considered ‘big’ nonetheless, as with research on global warming.

Reflections on Big Science

‘Big Science’ can be seen as a positive development but has also been criticized widely, both from within and from the outside of the scientific community. In World War II, science and science-driven industries had a large and sometimes deciding influence upon the course of events (e.g. the nuclear bombs dropped in Japan). Consequently, large-scientific efforts where equaled with progress and power, bringing positive sentiments towards the wonders of science. Hence, government investment in science continued after the war, but the different circumstances also forced society to rethink the role it envisioned science to play. It is within this context that writings on ‘Big Science’ got shape that celebrated the growth of science, but sometimes also took a critical stance.

Criticism concentrates on the relation between little and big science, the allocation of funds, the changing character of research and the role of the individual scientist. Weinberg scrutinized the bigness of physics and wondered if investing in other disciplines would not bring society more in return for its money, as for instance biology. However, not only the relation between disciplines is at stake, but also the division of resources within specific disciplines and its sub-disciplines. The allocation of funds and resources into a smaller number of bigger research efforts is a matter of politics. It has been argued that, in general, when science grows faster than society at large, this will result in societal pressure to counter such an unsustainable growth and consequently, the voices of politics and society will resonate ever louder within science and scientific practice.

Next to issues of allocation, ‘Big Science’ brings reflection on the character of science and the role of the scientists. Large-scale research efforts do not only bring new knowledge, but they also bureaucratize and politicize science. Moreover, industrialization makes science a routine activity that restricts the freedom of the individual scientist and his research, or even turns him into a ‘robot’. These arguments can be found as early as the 1960s and recently figured again in the debate on ‘Big Biology’.

The future of Big Science

“Big Science is here to stay”. Those words were written by Alvin M. Weinberg in 1961 and are equally applicable today. ‘Big Science’ can be found where big problems and big challenges arise in the interplay between science’s abilities and society’s wishes and demands. Nonetheless, the need for ‘Big Science’ is not always evidently clear. While nowadays science increasingly becomes a collaborative effort, it is important to realize that the organization of science does influence the ways in which scientists work and the knowledge that is produced. An example of this is the political prioritization of specific fields of science or particular research problems. Because of its size and bureaucratic and political context, ‘Big Science’ is more sensitive to such forms of steering. It is therefore most likely that in the nearby future a careful balance between ‘Big Science’ and traditional small-scale research will continue to be sought, enabling the different styles of research to complement each other.

Further Reading

  • Capshew, J. H. and K. A. Rader, 1992. "Big science: Price to the present." Osiris, 2nd Series 7:2-25.
  • Galison, P., 1992. Introduction: the many faces of big science. In P. Galison & B. Hevly (Eds.), Big Science: The Growth of Large-Scale Research. Stanford: Stanford University Press. ISBN: 0804723354
  • Lambright, H. W., 1998. Downsizing Big Science: Strategic Choices. Public administration review, 58(3):259-268.
  • National Research Council: Committee on Solar-Terrestrial Research, 1994. A Space Physics Paradox: Why Has Increased Funding Been Accompanied by Decreased Effectiveness in the Conduct of Space Physics Research? Washington DC: The National Academies Press. ISBN: 0309051770
  • Sklair, L., 1973. Organized Knowledge : A Sociological View of Science and Technology. St. Albans: Hart-Davis MacGibbon St Albans. ISBN: 0246106174
  • De Solla Price, D. J., 1963. Little Science, Big Science. New York, Columbia University Press.
  • Weinberg, A. M., 1961. "Impact of Large-Scale Science on the United States: Big science is here to stay, but we have yet to make the hard financial and educational choices it imposes." Science, 134(3473):161-164.
  • Weinberg, A. M.,1967. Reflections on Big Science. Oxford: Pergamon Press. ISBN: 0262730189


Vermeulen, N., & Penders, B. (2007). Big Science. Retrieved from


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