"Big science" gets the attention, but the diversity and synergy of "small science" may lead to greater advances at lower cost.
BOSTON Looking at the history of advanced technology in general, and the electronics niche in particular, one thing is clear: We're very dependent on materials science.
Whether it's ultrapure substances, new materials, nanoparticles, coatings, implantation, packaging or solid-state physics, not to mention testing and maintaining the most subtle electrical, mechanical, chemical and physical attributes (try measuring these parameters on nanoparticles!), materials science is one of the foundation blocks of the electronics industry.
That's one of the messages that came through at this week's annual meeting of the Materials Research Society, here. Among the 5,000 attendees were leading academics, students, corporate researchers and applications specialists from around the world. Looking at the program and walking the show floor, I was struck by the extraordinary diversity and multiplicity of niches.
To me, this is R&D and science at its best, with many sub-niches within a diversity of niches, probing new paths and opportunities, supporting the efforts of others with materials, products and equipment (the smaller the particle, the larger the instrumentation) and unanticipated synergies. Progress in one area often combines with or enables progress in other areas, usually in unforeseen ways. As we say, "stuff happens." In this case, the "stuff" may be that desirable combination of infrastructure support, unexpected advances, fortuitous combinations and even some serendipity.
Contrast this to big science, which gets so much attention through projects like CERN's Large Hadron Collider (around $10 billion), or many of NASA's mega-projects. (whatever your views on the virtues of sub-atomic research, it does take very serious money to do it.)
It is those other big science projects that worry me, since they develop a scientific and bureaucratic stagnation, and are often predicated on the myth of predictable, organized progress in research, development and application, which history shows is rarely the case.
A recent New York Times column, "NASA's Black Hole Budgets," by former top NASA administrator Alan Stern made the point vividly. Stern provided as examples the James Webb Space Telescope, which is $4 billion over its $1 billion budget, and the Mars Science Rover, which has already consumed $1.8 billion.
By contrast, the extremely successful Phoenix Mars Lander has a much small budget managed by tightly focused teams with support from experienced teams at JPL and elsewhere.
Sure, large projects are sometimes a necessity, like the Apollo lunar lander or development of atomic bomb. But it's the smaller, nimbler, more synergistic efforts and varied infrastructure, such as what I saw at the annual materials event, which will lead us to technical advances in ways we don't expect.