One big science project or 1000 smaller ones?

Shelia X. Wei, Howell Y. Wang, Cong Cao, Fred Y. Ye

Research output: Journal PublicationArticlepeer-review


Historical experiences show that big science projects such as Manhattan, Apollo, LHC and the Human Genome Project often need large investment and inevitably consume significant socioeconomic resources, whereas small science projects need only small investment. While most big science projects are based on known scientific principles, smaller ones explore unknowns that may result in breakthroughs, some of which may lead to Nobel Prizes. Closing one big science project may afford 1000 small science projects quantitatively. As such, decision-making on a big science project is not only a scientific issue, but also a socio-economic one. Based on the cost–benefit analysis of LHC (big science) and CNAO (small science), we found that small science projects have a higher benefit/cost ratio. At least three policy effects need to be considered: (1) Decision on investing in a big science project should consider both scientific and socio-economic merits. (2) Small science projects could be more effective than bigger ones in exploring the scientific frontier. (3) Replacing one big science project with many small science ones might benefit the scientific enterprise.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)479-484
Number of pages6
JournalCurrent Science
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 25 Aug 2021


  • Big and small science
  • Nobel Prize
  • cost–benefit analysis
  • socio-economic merits

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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