NASA's Nobel: small, medium and big science

The New York Times opines on the physics Nobel:

…The award is richly deserved, and the agency deserves great credit for making the work possible. Too bad the program that yielded these pioneering discoveries was reined in not long ago so that NASA could pour billions of dollars into resuming shuttle flights, finishing the international space station, and developing spacecraft to pursue the Bush administration’s ambitious space exploration program.

…Huge teams of government and academic researchers measured and analyzed the cosmic microwave background radiation that permeates the universe. Their findings provided strong support for the Big Bang theory of the origins of the universe, and turned cosmology, previously rather speculative, into a precise science. The discoveries have been hailed as one of the greatest scientific advances of the past century.

The COBE satellite was part of NASA’s Explorers Program, which uses small satellites to conduct important studies that don’t need gigantic, costly space platforms. Yet these and similar small-scale missions were disproportionately cut to free up money for more grandiose programs. The Nobel award suggests that NASA needs to rebalance its portfolio, a task the agency says is in progress.

Amazingly, COBE’s results didn’t come from a “huge team of … researchers”, but a relatively small, focused group of a few dozen scientists. More recent results from COBE’s successor, the WMAP satellite, came from similarly-sized teams; contrast this to the 400 or so working on ESA’s Planck Surveyor Satellite. Unfortunately for the 400 of us, two important things I’ve learned in my time as a scientist is that scientists are terrible at being managed—and even worse at being managers.