Most scientific knowledge has been developed by individuals puttering around in labs. Labs, not something the size of the Pyramids or Hoover Dam. But sometimes it has been produced in large, expensive projects and installations. Cutting-edge optical telescopes are big projects, true also for radio telescopes, definitely true for Ice Cube and LIGO. The same for particle physics, with SLAC and Fermilab and CERN.
Those big-science projects have been successful, but they haven’t been useful. They have produced almost exactly nothing of economic value. I get the impression that their builders would have been disappointed if they had been useful. That’s wrong thinking: a richer society could afford more physics!
I can think of at least two big-science projects that would make big money, as well as DOING GOOD and LEAVING FOOTPRINTS IN THE SANDS OF TIME . But how to get them off the ground? Policymakers are pretty skeptical about claims of big payoffs, since they’ve been lied to for generations, while investors are apparently looking for chicks with weird voices wearing turtlenecks.
Unlike the products of the Demon Princes of Silicon Valley, what I’m thinking about would be truly useful.