. "Large and Small Science Programs: A Delicate Balance The Great Importance of “Small” Science Programs." 50 Years of Ocean Discovery: National Science Foundation 1950-2000. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2000.
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50 Years of Ocean Discovery: National Science Foundation 1950—2000
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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