The Great Importance of ''Small" Science Programs
G. Michael Purdy
Division of Ocean Sciences, National Science Foundation
Any discussion of the merits of "large" versus "small" science programs (as alternative mechanisms for the organization and funding of basic research) must begin with a description of the factors that govern progress in research.
The core of basic research in the natural sciences is the generation of new ideas that explain natural phenomena in useful ways. Therefore, one essential goal of any organizational structure designed to support basic research must be the creation of new ideas. This is not a simple matter! Ideas are created by individuals. They are not arrived at by consensus, they are not directly the result of any formal process, and the best ideas cannot be produced according to any predetermined schedule. It is not always possible to predict which area of science will produce the best new ideas or, indeed in what direction these new concepts will lead. Ideas require stimulation beyond simply the curiosity of a bright mind, and the source of this stimulation can vary widely. Unexpected observations, new theoretical approaches, other investigators' ideas, or even the discovery of an error or an oversight in some previous work—all can play the catalytic role that converts a long period of unsatisfying bewilderment into a joyful flash of insight and understanding.
It is wrong, however, to represent basic research as nothing but idea generation. Progress in research depends on many other less abstract factors. If models and hypotheses are to be verified, appropriate data and observations are needed. If complex data sets are to be understood and made useful, data analysis tools are essential. If new fields are to be explored, the necessary measurement technologies must be developed. The design of any structure to support basic research must take into account these factors and many others.
Large science programs, such as those described later in this volume, involve many investigators in their planning and implementation and necessarily depend on the development of a consensus among the participating researchers concerning investigative strategies and plans. The process of developing this consensus allows participants to share ideas and opinions, and produces, most often, the optimal set of compromises required to match objectives with available capabilities and resources. The successes of this planning process for large programs are well documented in the articles cited later in this paper. A range of models for the management of large research programs have been developed and implemented, and their strengths are clear. They have achieved their objectives of developing global strategies for coordinated data collection, of building new cross disciplinary connections in the community, and of efficiently directing substantial resources toward focused research problems of particular significance to society. The strengths of community consensus-based planning for large research programs are well established. The shortcomings are not so obvious, but they are precisely the strengths of the individual-investigator, small science approach to the support of research and are most effectively described in these terms.
By far the single most important attribute of the individual-investigator, small science approach to the support of basic research is its superior ability to recognize, select, and support the best new ideas, new approaches, new investigators, who often challenge existing dogma and take the research in unpredicted directions. Small science projects are built around the single most important resource: the individual investigator. As emphasized earlier, ideas come from individuals and ideas are the foundation for all research progress. An effective system for the support of research must be as open as possible to all investigators and all ideas, so there is the richest possible field of opportunities from which to select when the harsh reality of prioritization and resource allocation is faced.
The Division of Ocean Sciences at the National Science Foundation (NSF) supports five core disciplinary programs in biological, chemical, and physical oceanography; oceanographic technology; and marine geology and geophysics. These five programs are the engines that generate the ideas that drive ocean discovery. The rich diversity of the topics that these programs support makes it impossible to summa
rize their effectiveness or their contributions. This can be achieved only by example. It was with this goal in mind that four leading researchers were invited to present at the symposium their perspectives on the role of small programs in the progress of basic ocean research. Susan Lozier, Cynthia Jones, Miguel Goñi, and Maureen Raymo—physical, biological, chemical, and geological oceanographers, respectively—used different approaches to present convincing evidence of the importance of small research programs to the health of the field.
The theme developed earlier, concerning the importance of the individual investigator, was emphasized by Susan Lozier with an eloquent quotation from the great oceanographer Hank Stommel (1989, p. 50):
Breaking new ground in science is such a difficult process that it can only be done by an individual mind.
Lozier described clearly a number of specific contributions by individuals that have shaped our understanding of ocean dynamics today and showed how each contribution constituted one more step toward understanding—each successive investigator standing on the shoulders of his or her predecessors to gain a deeper understanding of the ocean's complex processes. The earliest beginnings of physical oceanography lie in the first recorded temperature measurements of the deep ocean by British sea captain Henry Ellis in 1751, resulting in the first suggestion of a generally global feature of our oceans—the thermocline—that has proven surprisingly difficult to understand quantitatively. Lozier chronicled the ideas and approaches of Iselin (1939) and Montgomery (1938), and the progress of Welander (1959, 1971), but explained that it was not until the work of Luyten, Pedlosky, and Stommel (1983) that a theory was developed that could be used to predict the vertical and horizontal structure of the ocean' s density field. Other examples of the stepwise nature of progress toward understanding the physics of the oceans were described with continuing emphasis on the importance of the contribution of the individual, and with a particular plea that everyone in the field make the individual effort to teach, to mentor, and to support students and younger colleagues. Lozier described the rewards of progressing through the often lonely and frustrating process of problem solving (e.g., Lozier et al., 1994; Lozier, 1997) to that special moment of insight and first understanding, as "the lightness of discovery"—that special and unique moment of satisfaction and clarity. This precious reward is a strangely powerful motivator and is to be experienced only by the individual investigator. The important theme of Lozier's presentation was effectively summarized in her closing words: " . . . as we collectively progress toward that elusive ocean of truth, we would do well to remember that we do so with many individual steps."
A different, but comparably compelling perspective, was provided in Cynthia Jones' paper on fisheries ecology, which served also to emphasize the important role that technology (in this case the development of inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry [ICP-MS]) plays in enabling breakthroughs in research. Unlike many other marine organisms, fish provide clues to understand the processes that affect population dynamics because they contain a dated record of important life history events encoded in their bones. The most reliable bones that serve as data loggers in fish are the earbones or otoliths. Fish encode a history of their age and growth as the result of periodic rings that are visible in a cross section of an otolith, in a pattern similar to that found in trees (e.g., Jones, 1986, 1992, 1995). The elemental composition of the annual bands in the otolith reflects to some degree the environmental characteristics of the water in which the fish lives. Since the physical and chemical composition of the water varies spatially, otolith microchemistry records the water mass characteristics specific to a particular area and thus provides a possible technique for defining population associations and providing insight into population dynamics. The commercial availability of ICP-MS has enabled the development of techniques to read the chemical composition of the otolith and reveal a retrospective datable history of migration contained within the otolith bands. This research has been carried out over the past eight years or so, supported by a series of modest grants to individual researchers. This science was not part of a major initiative developed from the consensus of leading researchers, but rather was developed by a few independent investigators proposing to extend the frontiers of knowledge in understanding the ecology of marine fish with a novel and (at least in the early days of the research) high-risk approach.
Miguel Goñi's presentation provided examples of the critical contributions of individual-investigator research to the field of biogeochemistry, a field within which the large international program known as the Joint Global Ocean Flux Study (JGOFS) plays a dominant role. Goñi made the point that although continents have long been identified as key suppliers of dissolved and particulate matter to the oceans, and oceans and continents are (obviously) intimately connected by rivers, groundwater, and wind, much of the ocean biogeochemistry research of the past several decades has focused on internal ocean processes. Major ocean programs have almost exclusively investigated the marine carbon and nutrient cycles in the context of ocean productivity and indeed have led to considerable increases in the understanding of internal carbon and nutrient dynamics in the upper ocean. In contrast, the efforts to further investigate the role of land-derived materials in ocean chemistry have been led predominantly by individual investigators working on small independent grants (e.g., Goñi et al., 1997). Their findings in recent years represent important breakthroughs in the understanding of ocean biogeochemistry. Three examples that were well developed in Goñi's talk were the, importance of terrigenous organic carbon in marine sediments, the role of mineral surfaces in the preservation of organic matter in marine sediments, and the importance of groundwater inputs
to the ocean. The complexity of ocean processes essentially guarantees that there are always fertile areas away from the focused efforts of the major programs that, as Goñi points out, can yield important and fundamental results.
The core of Maureen Raymo' s talk on paleoclimatology and paleoceanography was the description of two excellent examples of exciting progress that has been made in this field during the past decade. In the early 1980s, there were two main views as to why climate changed on tectonic and millennial timescales. In the first, it was suggested that critical sills or gateways opened or closed, perturbing ocean and atmospheric heat transport to the degree that Earth's albedo, and hence global climate, changed. The second view, championed by Walter Pitman, Jim Hayes, Jim Walker, and Bob Berner, was that changes in the rates of seafloor spreading, and hence mantle degassing, changed the amount of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, in the atmosphere. Although this second idea was intriguing to Raymo, the mismatch in timing between when seafloor spreading rates slowed down (in the late Cretaceous) and when Cenozoic cooling occurred (post-Eocene), caused her to develop an alternative hypothesis whereby the late Cenozoic cooling was caused instead by enhanced chemical weathering and consumption of atmospheric carbon dioxide in the mountainous regions of the world, in particular the Himalayas. This controversial hypothesis remains unproven, but it stimulates much valuable debate among scientists working not only in marine geology, but also in tectonics, geomorphology, river chemistry, weathering reactions, climate, and carbon cycle modeling. Importantly, all of these ideas are attributable to individual scientists' questioning, testing, and refuting or confirming the ideas of colleagues.
The second example quoted by Maureen Raymo is of particular interest to this debate because it is concerned with the interaction of big and small science. In the early 1990s, researchers first realized that the dramatic and rapid air temperature changes observed in Greenland ice cores could also be seen in records of sea-surface temperature variability recorded in North Atlantic sediments. It is now recognized that changes in the chemistry of the deep and intermediate ocean also occur on these time scales, suggesting that such climatic cycles are global in extent and potentially involve reorganizations of ocean thermohaline circulation on time-scales as short as decades to centuries. To investigate this phenomenon Raymo and her colleague Delia Oppo determined that they needed to recover deep-ocean sediment cores containing millennial-resolution sequences extending far back in time, into periods warmer than today. In this way the physical behavior of the climate system could be studied under a number of different climate regimes. However, the only way that such sediment cores could be recovered was by using a deep-ocean drillship. This challenge was overcome by submitting a successful proposal to the Ocean Drilling Program, which subsequently scheduled the drilling vessel JOIDES [Joint Oceanographic Institutions for Deep Earth Sampling] Resolution on Leg 162 with Maureen Raymo as co-chief scientist to collect the samples required (Raymo et al., 1999). It was six years or less after they had received their Ph.D. degrees that Raymo and Oppo, through their intellect and originality, were able to steer a major international resource—JOIDES Resolution—to attack their problem, and investigate their idea. This is an excellent example of how big science, when well managed, can be responsive to the best ideas of individual scientists.
The subjects are varied, but all four of these presentations were uncompromising in their praise of the value and effectiveness of individual-investigator research projects. Later in this volume, a similarly compelling case is made concerning the essential contributions of large organized programs. Both mechanisms—small and large programs—contribute in important ways to the overall research endeavor. In fact, a strong case can be made that the success of the U.S. basic research enterprise is due in large part to the diversity of management approaches and funding mechanisms that are available to U.S. academic researchers. It is not a meaningful or useful quest to search for the "one best way" to support basic research. There is no such thing. It is appropriate to end these brief comments with a quotation from a 1995 National Academy of Sciences (NAS, 1995) report that eloquently states a fundamental truth:
. . . in reality pluralism is a great source of strength, an advantage over the ways research and development are organized in many other countries. The diversity of performers fosters creativity and innovation. It increases the number of perspectives on a problem. It makes competition among proposals richer, and it induces competition to support the best work . . . diverse funding alternatives give original ideas a better chance to find support than would a more centralized system. A pluralistic research and development system thus enhances quality and our national capacity to respond to new opportunities and changing national needs. (p. 29)
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