ASCB Newsletter Nov 2013 - page 3

The American Society
for Cell Biology
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Stefano Bertuzzi
Executive Director
Don W. Cleveland
Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz
Ronald Vale
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Thoru Pederson
Kathleen J. Green
Sue Biggins
David Botstein
A. Malcolm Campbell
Martin Chalfie
Benjamin S. Glick
Daniel Kiehart
Akihiro Kusumi
Ruth Lehmann
Laura M. Machesky
Mark Peifer
James H. Sabry
Yixian Zheng
ASCB Newsletter
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ASCB Newsletter
ISSN 1060-8982
Volume 36, Number 10
November 2013
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ASCB Newsletter
The American Society for Cell Biology
8120 Woodmont Avenue, Suite 750
Bethesda, MD 20814-2762, USA
Bigger Is Only Sometimes Better,
but It’s Certainly Impressive
Recently I was invited to speak about research
and innovation at an Aspen Institute meeting
in Geneva, Switzerland, held at the
Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire
, better
known to the rest of the world by its acronym,
CERN. The meeting was a great
opportunity to discuss the future
of basic research and its impact
on innovation. Interestingly, this
small meeting (40–50 people)
brought together a diverse group of
politicians, journalists, scientists,
and thought leaders from
around the world. The high-level
discussion and the exposure to the
exhilarating atmosphere at CERN
led me to ponder the differences
between big science, like that
carried out by CERN and other groups, and the
more small-shop approach that is common in
biomedical research.
Just to give a sense of the physical (no pun
intended) magnitude of the science that is
carried out at CERN, let’s remember that the
170-meter-deep underground Large Hadron
Collider (LHC) tunnel is 27 kilometers in
diameter (17 miles!) and traverses the Swiss–
French border. The collision detector is
essentially a (truly) gigantic camera, which snaps
80 million pictures per second. The computing
power needed to analyze data generated by
these experiments is mind boggling even for cell
biologists used to large data sets.
Big Science or Small Science?
Studying particle physics with the LHC is the
ultimate big science, and it is very different from
our much-valued and essential investigator-
initiated basic cell research funded through
National Institutes of Health (NIH) R01 grants.
Let me make it absolutely clear that I am not
suggesting that big science is the direction that
molecular and cellular biology should go. In fact
it is illogical to ask which approach is better;
we need to use big science or small science,
whichever is appropriate. Clearly, we could
not have detected the Higgs boson by funding
thousands of R01s in independent laboratories
around the world. And certainly we would not
have achieved all the health gains we have by
funding one large project.
Indeed, CERN exemplifies big
science of a kind that does not
exist in biology, at least at present.
Possibly the closest analogy would
be the Human Genome Project
(HGP), but even there the parallel
does not hold exactly true. The
HGP was a coordinated effort
among many labs around the
world, tackling a major challenge
by dividing it up. But the HGP
was not one big lab, using one
big instrument, and asking one single, big
question. Even the newly announced BRAIN
Initiative does not compare with the LHC. In
biology, large-scale science of the LHC variety is
unimaginable for now. However the future may
be slightly different.
As biology becomes more and more
quantitative, computational, and data-heavy,
we may encounter a common problem that is
best approached through a large-scale common
resource that would be beyond the powers of
any one group or institution to create. But
this approach is likely to apply only under
very special circumstances and should require
only a small fraction of the overall research
budget, because what best fuels our type of basic
research is the small-lab approach that most
ASCB members are familiar with.
Experimental vs. Theoretical
I was struck by another aspect of the LHC.
The experimental part of the CERN project
came long after the theoretical. The idea
behind the Higgs boson was an incredibly
robust theoretical model long before anyone
thought of an experiment to test its validity.
by Stefano Bertuzzi
Stefano Bertuzzi
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