In many discussions the concepts of big and little science are presented in near mythical terms—terms that cloud the complexity of the issues involved. Little science is usually represented by the lone researcher working in the laboratory on self-chosen problems, generally oblivious to the needs and/or requests of society. Big science, on the other hand, is often envisioned as a huge project or institute, managed by a bloated bureaucracy that directs, usually by committee, the scientific paths of many researchers. These are unsatisfactory and largely inaccurate generalizations that have led to more sterile argument than productive discussion.
One of the main reasons for this situation is that there is no absolute definition of big or little science. There seems to be a tendency in experimental science for small endeavors to evolve into large ones. Therefore, the bigness or smallness of any given scientific effort will depend on when it is observed within the evolution of its scientific subfield. In addition, the perceived size of a scientific project will vary from one subfield to another, as well as from one funding agency to another. What is considered a small satellite project is a very large project for rocketry or ballooning; what is a small project for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is generally a large project for the National Science Foundation. Furthermore, what is considered a small project today generally was thought to have been a large project years ago. This latter effect—the time dependence of the accepted measures of big and little project sizes—is a strong function of technological advances in the field. For example, today's desktop computers far outstrip the capabilities of the best mainframes of two decades ago—the big computer of yesterday is the little computer of today. A similar evolution has occurred in the space physics experimental arena, with the result that even today's small experiments are more sensitive, capable, complex, and expensive than those considered large in earlier years.
Although it is not possible to formulate accurate, universal definitions of big science and little science, it is possible to recognize each at a given point in time, in a particular subfield, and within a specific funding agency. The discussion in this report is based on researchers' perceptions of what constitutes big and little science, even though, as mentioned above, these terms vary by agency, subfield, and time.
Big science and little science are characterized by very different needs, capabilities, and difficulties. In order that a proper balance between them be approximated in a given subfield, it is important to recognize how their respective strengths support the research objectives of the field.
Large projects are required for that unique class of science problems that