The closure of the Tevatron particle accelerator seems to be prompting more nostalgia than introspection among those considering the implications of this event. The termination of the space shuttle program has brought on similar reactions: Neil Armstrong went so far as to call it “embarrassing.”
As an article in the BBC points out, it is international collaboration that will definitively be part of the future of “big science.” Funding is increasingly limited even as scientific research equipment grows larger and more expensive; this necessarily drives international collaboration.
But while big science will continue to grab our attention, its transition into an international arena affords us the opportunity to raise questions about what we should expect from national public science and perhaps even generate new possibilities for what we might call “small science.” The closure of the Tevatron and space shuttle program ought to cause an existential crisis in American public science.
From such a crisis, perhaps ideals such as economic sustainability and social resiliency can emerge as guides to what counts as innovative or transformative research to balance the current overreliance on the traditional (and some might say risky) ideals of national pride and economic competitiveness.
What almost everyone agrees is that international collaboration is the key in an era when it takes a machine the size of a Large Hadron Collider (LHC) to break frontiers.
“I think what’s happening is that these big-ticket items are just so big that no country is doing it alone,” said Rob Roser, who heads up the CDF collaboration, one of the two giant detectors at the Tevatron.
“In the old days, the US built the Tevatron all by itself,” he told BBC News. “But to build the next machine, that won’t be the case – we’ll need help from everybody.”
The LHC has set an impressive precedent for this kind of international buy-in, but two well-known problems stand in the way of the US playing host to facilities that require international financing.
One is that budgets for science endeavours are most often decided on a yearly basis. What is promised as a decade of annual funding one year can be whittled down the next, or shot down altogether.
“When you look at Nasa and individual missions that cost hundreds of millions each year, those are large budget items that Congress sees,” explained Dr Clemins.
“When they’re looking to cut the budget, those programmes definitely have a bullseye on them.”
Low security of funds may scare off international collaborations, but heightened security at the borders is another stumbling block.
Immigration restrictions that have come into force in the past decade have made it particularly difficult for non-US scientists to gain the easy access that visitors to other big global facilities might find.
In short, as Dr Roser puts it: “To be successful in the long run in terms of international projects, we have to be better international players.”