VOICES: Big Advancements through Small Science

What is “small science”?

The origin of this phrase can be traced to the post-World War II era, as a contrast to “big science.” Scientists defined big science as projects such as the Manhattan Project, which ended World War II and launched us into the nuclear age, or the space program that landed humans on the moon.

In contrast, at that time physicists were explaining the evolution and consequence of science, from small to big. To put it simply, big science projects are built on small science advancements. Take Robert Goddard’s invention of liquid propelled rockets—his experiments in physics and aerodynamics as a teenager at home ultimately led to landing on the moon and the exploration of space.

Biology, often described as small science, is launching into an exciting new era. This was largely made possible by applying physics and chemistry to develop new technologies advancing this new type of small science. These technologies sped-up the process and accuracy of determining the structure of biomolecules (specifically, the DNA blueprint of plants and animals), and was the basis for the Human Genome Project. Thus, small science enabled big science.

Translating this biological blueprint will require the science of small things. The coming challenge is to determine the structures of millions of very small biological entities—proteins, RNA molecules, sugars, lipids, small metabolites— and we will need to know where they are within cells and tissues, and how they are affected as time elapses. Although we know many of these small entities, there are many more unknown awaiting discovery. How many are unknown? When will we know we are done? Answering these challenges is big science on a small scale.

This issue of STORIES explores research in the sciences on a small scale. Iowa State University researchers are looking for discoveries in small plots, in small organisms or in small molecules, which will uncover advances and provide the foundation for major scientific breakthroughs.

Analogous to going to the moon— small science deserves the investments of big science. There is a rich harvest of advances to gain from this big science of small things—cures to diseases, overcoming hunger and malnutrition and developing a sustainable economy.

— Basil J. Nikolau is the Frances M. Craig Professor of Biochemistry in the Roy J. Carver  Department of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology