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Beyond Big Science

Billion-dollar science projects end up being about much more than the science, whether we're talking about particle physics, or fusion research, or the international space station, or missions to the moon and beyond, or the next-generation radio telescope. They're also experiments in national prestige, international cooperation and technological leadership - and they can end up lasting far longer than the regimes that started them.

That point was brought home last weekend during a side trip on the Big Science Tour, to the Palace of Versailles near Paris. Among the glories on view were the newly renovated 17th-century Hall of Mirrors, as well as an 18th-century astronomical clock that has kept track of the hours, days, years and planetary progressions since Louis XV's reign.

Through revolutions and wars, these marvels demonstrated the scientific and technological prowess of the people who made them - sparking awe amid allies and would-be rivals, and stimulating future generations of innovators. Even the mirrors of Versailles had a technological purpose at the time, to demonstrate that France could outdo the Venetians in one of the most important crafts of the day.

Now the technological game is shifting, to reward those who can most skillfully capitalize on international collaboration. CERN provides one example of that, where the Europeans appear to be securely in the driver's seat when it comes to the next decade of particle physics.

The international fusion research effort known as ITER shows how things have changed in the half-century since CERN was created: After decades of political wrangling, ITER's seven parties worked out complicated formulas for divvying up and procuring the in-kind contributions that make up as much as 90 percent of the projected $13 billion budget. None of the countries wanted to serve merely as a cash machine for ITER; rather, they're all looking for the national boost resulting from Big Science.

"For the partners, this gives you an immediate guarantee that you have a return of the technologies," Carlos Alejaldre, one of ITER's acting deputy directors-general, explained to me.

Alejaldre said experts who are involved in future Big Science projects now under consideration, such as the International Linear Collider and the Square Kilometer Array, are  consulting with ITER officials about the lessons learned.

"Some people say that the management of ITER is an experiment in itself. ... This is a good example to follow to build these new experiments," he said.

Even the Boeing Co.'s next-generation Dreamliner jet, due for its debut next week, could be considered a private-sector experiment in international technological management, in light of the fact that the only structural component built strictly at a Boeing plant in the United States is the vertical tail fin.

However, there are experiments that result in something short of full success (like my video snapshots from CERN, for example). Will participating nations get less than their money's worth if it turns out that a Big Science project takes the wrong approach?

For instance, some have argued that the roughly billion-dollar Mars rover missions have provided more scientific bang for the buck than the $100 billion international space station project. Others maintain that ITER's approach to the fusion challenge is destined to lose out to other approaches such as inertial confinement (or inertial electrostatic confinement, which ranks right up there with the iPhone as one of the Web's latest buzztechs).

Over the weeks and months ahead, we'll be taking a closer look at future trends in international scientific collaboration as well as particle physics and fusion research. During this two-week European tour, some commenters have complained that I should have been taking a more critical look at Big Science - but it's hard to do that on a quick drop-in basis. Try to regard this tour merely as an initial, impressionistic look, to be followed up by the full treatment later.

So although this is the end of the Big Science Tour, it's not the end of our coverage. And we're certainly not closing off the commentary, either. Feel free to add your big-picture observations (as well as your brickbats about past coverage and tips for future coverage) in the comments section below.

Previously from the Big Science Tour:The science behind the tour ... Living in the Web's cradle ... Inside the big-bang machine ... Toiling in the fields of physics ... Inside the antimatter factory... First, the Web ... now, the Grid ... Suspense on a subatomic scale ... Inside fusion's fortress ... How far away is fusion?