Big Science is a term used by scientists and historians of science to describe a series of changes in science which occurred in industrial nations during and after World War II, when the making of science shifted from individual or small group efforts, or Small Science, to relying on large-scale heavily funded projects. Small science is still relevant today as theoretical results by individual authors may have a significant impact, but very often the empirical verification requires experiments using constructions, such as the Large Hadron Collider costing between $5 and $10 billion.
While science and technology have always been important to and driven by warfare, the increase in military funding of science following the second World War was on a scale wholly unprecedented. World War II has often been called "the physicists' war" for the role that those scientists played in the development of new weapons and tools, notably the proximity fuze, radar, and the atomic bomb. The bulk of these last two activities took place in a new form of research facility: the government-sponsored laboratory, employing thousands of technicians and scientists, managed by universities (in this case, the University of California and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology).
In the shadow of the first atomic weapons, the importance of a strong scientific research establishment was apparent to any country wishing to play a major role in international politics. After the success of the Manhattan Project, a scientific and technological endeavor on an unprecedented scale, governments became the chief patron of science, and the character of the scientific establishment underwent several key changes. This was especially marked in the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but also to a lesser extent in many other countries.
"Big Science" usually implies one or more of these specific characteristics:
Towards the end of the 20th century, not only projects in basic physics and astronomy, but also in life sciences became big sciences, such as the massive project involved in the sequencing of the human genome. The heavy investment of government and industrial interests into academic science has also blurred the line between public and private research, where entire academic departments, even at public universities, are often financed by private companies. Not all Big Science is related to the military concerns which were at its origins.
The era of Big Science has provoked criticism that it undermines the basic principles of the scientific method. Results of experiments which require massive and unique machines like particle accelerators are often difficult to verify. Access to scientific facilities is often limited to those who are already accomplished, leading to charges of elitism. And increased government funding has often meant increased military funding, which some claim subverts the Enlightenment-era ideal of science as a pure quest for knowledge.
Many scientists also complain that the requirement for increased funding makes a large part of the scientific activity filling out grant requests and other budgetary bureaucratic activity, and the intense connections between academic, governmental, and industrial interests have raised the question of whether scientists can be completely objective when their research contradicts the interests and intentions of their benefactors.
The popularization of the term "Big Science" is usually attributed to an article by Alvin M. Weinberg, then director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, published in Science in 1961. Weinberg compared the large-scale enterprise of science in the 20th century to the wonders of earlier civilization (the pyramids, the palace of Versailles):
Since Weinberg's article there have been many historical and sociological studies on the effects of Big Science both in and out of the laboratory. Many historians have postulated many "pre-cursors" to Big Science in earlier times: the Uraniborg of Tycho Brahe (in which massive astronomical instruments were made, often with little practical purpose) and the large cryogenics laboratory established by Heike Kamerlingh Onnes in 1904 have been cited as early examples of Big Science.