Tag Archives: giant research groups


Individual Researchers  versus Group Efforts in Science  (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Individual Researchers versus Group Efforts in Science   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

Ultimately, progress in science depends upon the work of many individual scientists.  Even where important new concepts or dramatic new research advances arise over a long period of time, one individual researcher with insight, determination, and innovation usually has a central role.  The importance of individuals as investigators and inventors in modern science becomes very obvious when the career efforts of certain giants in research are examined; new readers should refer to my earlier articles briefly presenting Thomas A. Edison and Nikola Tesla (see article in the Basic Introductions category on “Inventors & Scientists”), and, Edwin H. Land (see article in the Essays category on “Curiosity, Creativity, Inventiveness, and Individualism in Science”).  All 3 of these renowned researchers were extraordinary individuals, both in science and in life.  It is interesting to note that when these 3 continued their pioneering experimental studies and commercial innovations, all formed large research groups so as to be able to carry out their many complex and extensive research activities. 

Any one individual scientist can only conduct and complete a few experimental studies in a given year of time.  To really be able to work to a larger extent, more than 2 hands are needed!  The simplest way to do this is to win a research grant that pays for salaries of technicians, graduate students, and Postdocs.  Another good approach is to form research groups.  Research scientists often associate with others for collaborative studies, either informally or formally.  Small successful research groups easily can grow larger.  For the complex and more extensive research work needed by projects in Big Science (i.e., the Manhattan Project during WW2 [1,2], and the projects of NASA in space research [3], are typical examples of Big Science), very large groups of research scientists are essential. 

Research groups of any size have certain general advantages over isolated individual scientists: (1) larger financial resources, (2) more lab space, (3) more brains, (4) more hands, (5) better ability to apply multiple approaches to any one project, (6) more flexibility, (7) greater efficiency of effort, and, (8) increased productivity.  This essay examines the general roles of individuals and of groups for working in scientific research. 

Individual Scientists and Small Research Groups

The early research scientists all were very strongly individualistic.  Classical science recognized that individual researchers are the primary basis for creativity, new directions, inventions, and research breakthroughs; this has not changed even in today’s science.  For research conducted in universities, one still finds many individual scientists pursuing good laboratory projects.  However, with the modern system for grant-supported research studies, an increasing number of individual scientists now are moving their experimental investigations into group efforts.  Small research groups in universities typically have around 5-20 members and staff (i.e., faculty collaborators on the same campus, faculty collaborators and visitors from other universities, graduate students, postdoctoral research associates, research technicians, etc.); small groups typically work within several laboratory rooms.  At the other end of the scale are giant research groups working under one Director, having over 100 scientists and research staff, and, occupying several floors or even an entire separate building.  Some medium- and large-sized research groups fill the interval between the small and giant associations. 

For studies in industrial research and development (R&D) laboratories, both individual scientists and various research groups are utilized.  Individual doctoral researchers often function as leaders or specialized workers in small or large groups.  Larger groups in industrial research often extend between different divisions and locations of the company.  Several or many small industrial research groups can be networked into extensive research operations in different states, nations, and continents.   Since many research efforts in industry pursue coordinated applied research and engineering studies targeted towards specific new or improved products, group activities are very appropriate for these R&D operations.

Large and Giant Research Groups

Since success breeds more success, there is a general tendency in universities for flourishing small groups to become larger.  All large research groups have greater capabilities for producing extensive results within a shorter period of time.  They also minimize the impact of the hyper-competition for research grants upon most members within the group, since one large award or several regular awards provide for the group’s experiments.  In academia, one even can find some entire science departments where almost all faculty members, other than those working exclusively with teaching, are organized to function as a single large research unit. 

In very large groups of researchers, group-think often becomes usual.  Most decisions are already made and each worker generally is concerned only with their small area of personal work.  Thus, individualism of everyone except The Director is squelched.  In many cases, the role of doctoral scientists within the large and giant groups at universities devolves into serving only as very highly educated research technicians.  The Big Boss is happy when everyone does their assigned tasks well, and thus there is little need for any individual input, creative new ideas, questions about alternatives, or self-development.  In my view, this group-think situation is very consistent with the new trend for academic science to now be just a commercialized business entity (see my earlier article in the Big Problems category on “What is the Very Biggest Problem for Science Today?”).  One can even think here about an analogy of giant research groups to the assembly lines of commercial manufacturers; indeed, giant groups operating in universities commonly are referred to by other scientists as being research factories.  In those factories, it is doubtful that the Big Boss even can recall the names of all the many individual scientists working there. 

Nevertheless, giant groups can achieve notable successes in scientific research.  As described above, they also have some disadvantages for lab research studies.  It seems to me that the Chief Scientist in a research factory mostly functions for expert planning, integrating the many different experiments and diverse results into a cohesive whole, and, shielding all group members from the distractions of dealing with the research grant system and bureaucracies; these activities all are both difficult and important for research progress, and, therefore are deserving of praise. 

Small versus Large Research Groups

 Each of the differently sized environments for laboratory research at universities has both advantages and disadvantages.  The degree of positive or negative features for any given research endeavor must be evaluated in order to determine which situation is best.  It seems obvious that the different group situations will appeal to different types of personalities, and will be more productive for certain kinds of research studies.  Most of the classical and modern breakthroughs in scientific research have been brought forth by individuals or small research groups, and not by large or giant groups.  Research scientists working today as individuals in academia usually are dedicated to highly specialized niche studies, and are extremely careful to select a subject for their research which has no likelihood of competing with investigations of any large research group.  Such competition would be the instant kiss-of-death for any individual scientist, since it would be analogous to one mouse attempting to outdo a huge grizzly bear. 

 I have always researched as an individual scientist, whether all by myself or in a small group.  I also have known several other scientists in academia who were both very productive and quite happy to work within very large groups.  I view small research groups as being mostly good, but large and giant groups often seem problematic with regard to creativity and individualism; these qualities are vital for the success of scientific research (see my recent article in the Essays category on “Curiosity, Creativity, Inventiveness, and Individualism in Science”). 

The large federal agencies offering research grants now seem to favor giving awards to larger groups.  This probably is done because those groups always provide a much, much firmer likelihood that all their proposed studies will progress as planned, everything will be completed on time, and the anticipated research results will be validated by the “new” experimental data.  Interestingly, these capabilities often come about because the giant research operations actually conduct, analyze, and finish all the planned studies during the period of their last funding; thus, any of their proposed experiments and anticipated results can be almost guaranteed.  Small groups and individual researchers simply are not able to do that, and therefore their proposals always seem somewhat chancier to evaluators of grant applications. 

With the present hyper-competition for research grants at universities, very large groupshave the easy capability to completely overrun everyone else.  They can very easily pick up any new study, start researching immediately, and, complete everything in a much shorter time period than could any individual scientist or small group.  The overwhelming strength of very large research groups necessarily has an inhibiting influence on individuals and small groups; this seems to be the price that must be paid for obtaining the beneficial functional advantages and strong output of larger research groups.  Even some brilliant individual scientist inevitably will find that they are at a strong disadvantage if they directly compete with large research groups for funding of a similar experimental project.

Concluding Remarks

Small research groups often form naturally in universities.  As soon as several individual faculty scientists in one or several departments discover that they have some common research interests, new small group efforts often can arise.  Scientists love to talk and argue with other scientists, and this often encourages the formation of these smaller associations.  Small groups can retain many of the advantages of single research scientists, along with having some of the good characteristics of large research groups.  However, successful small research groups must try to avoid growing too much, such that they do not acquire the negative features of very large research groups; successful small groups should recognize that growing into a much larger research group will not necessarily make the former better. 

 Smaller research groups can be viewed ass hybrids having some of the advantageous features of both individual researchers and giant research groups.  Small groups thus seem to me to be a very good model for the organization of future university research activities in science.

[1]  Los Alamos Historical Society, 2014.  Manhattan Project.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.losalamoshistory.org/manhattan.htm .
[2]  U.S. History, 2014.  51f.  The Manhattan Project.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.ushistory.org/us/51f.asp .
[3]  NASA Science, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2014.   Science@NASA.    Available on the internet at:   http://science.nasa.gov/.



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