Small science on big machines: Politics and practices of synchrotron radiation laboratories

Abstract: Synchrotron radiation laboratories are large scientific facilities where various scientific experiments are carried out by the use of radiation produced by particle accelerators. Research with synchrotron radiation emerged in the 1960s and 1970s as a peripheral activity at particle physics laboratories. It has since expanded and taken over facilities from particle physics, and developed specialized accelerators of its own, gradually becoming an important resource for a variety of scientific disciplines, foremost for different types of studies of materials on atomic and molecular level. This thesis is a study of the institutionalization of synchrotron radiation – its scientific and technological, but also political and sociological, development. Three case studies, chosen to complement each other, highlight different aspects of this process. The Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource in Menlo Park, California, was a pioneering laboratory in the early days of synchrotron radiation. MAX-lab in Lund, Sweden, originated as a small scale university project and expanded gradually to become a national and international user facility. The European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France, is a multinational collaborative European project and one of the world’s largest synchrotron radiation laboratories. The analysis is organized around three themes: the changing dynamics of science, changes in science policy, and the identification of scientific entrepreneurs – actors with particularly strong roles in the institutionalization. In recent decades, science has encountered increased demands for accountability and social and economic returns, resulting in disciplinary and organizational restructurings and internal sociological changes. These include the collectivization of scientific research and the sophistication of scientific instrumentation. The thesis identifies synchrotron radiation laboratories as manifestations of these trends; they are a new type of ‘big science’, sustaining small scale science in various fields – small science on big machines. It is argued that both the laboratories and the scientific activities they host are particularly well adapted to the new social and political conditions.