Big science and human development – what is the connection?

Keywords: economic development, innovation, science engagement, SKA telescope, large-scale science facilities


The rationale for public expenditure and political support for large-scale science infrastructure is commonly underpinned by a universalist logic of big science’s benefits. Literature assessing the impact of big science focuses on its contributions towards new fundamental insights about the universe; the development of skills, capabilities, networks, and innovation; and the development of globally transformative technology platforms that in turn make significant impacts on global human development. However, research into the local development impact of big science infrastructure is scarce. In this paper we reflect on the development impact of a big science project at the local level, drawing on the case study of the Square Kilometre Array telescope in South Africa’s Karoo region. We find that the universalist logic that appears to apply at the global and national levels does not necessarily apply at the local level, where big science has resulted in human development benefits, but also substantial economic and social costs. On this basis we recommend that big science infrastructures, particularly in marginalised areas of developing countries, require a localised development proposition that takes into account local social complexities on the basis of extensive local engagement.


  • A synthetic review is presented of the different causal pathways through which big science may impact on human development.
  • Analytical distinctions are developed between the human development impacts of big science at the global, national, and local scales.
  • Considerations are put forward for a developmental agenda for big science facilities, particularly in developing countries.
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