In America’s competitive scientific arena, different areas contend for limited funds, as their benefits to society—cures for disease, national defense, cultural value—are weighed. The pure and the applied, the theoretical and the experimental, also vie for dollars and recognition.

Two other categories, big science and little science, fracture the lines in yet another direction. What are they? Do their differences matter?

Should we as scientists, or the United States as a nation, care? My research experience in condensed matter physics (CMP), as it changes from “little” to “big,” has made me confront these questions.

When I was a graduate physics student in the 1960s, “big” meant high-energy elementary particle physics. Economics and technology dictated that only large organizations could deal with huge machines like particle accelerators. As a result, the high-energy style is to cluster numerous experimental stations around an accelerator, supported by many millions of federal dollars. Each station...

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