Tag Archives: group-think

INDIVIDUAL WORK VERSUS GROUP EFFORTS IN SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH


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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MONEY NOW IS EVERYTHING IN SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH AT UNIVERSITIES

All Is Money in University Science  (dr-monsrs.net)
All  Is  Money  in  University  Science     (dr-monsrs.net)

            Scientific research in recent times certainly is very costly (see my earlier post on “Introduction to Money in Modern Scientific Research” in the Money & Grants category).  Everything in a university research laboratory is quite expensive and costs keep rising each year.  Even such common inexpensive items as paper towels, phone calls, xerographic copies, and keys to lab rooms need to be paid for at many universities.  To handle all these expenses, faculty scientists must apply for a research grant, obtain an award, and then work hard to later get it renewed.  Unless a faculty member is working at a small undergraduate college, it simply is not possible to conduct research using only internal funds and undergraduate volunteer lab workers.  Without having laboratory co-workers, research comes to a screeching halt whenever the faculty member must be out of the lab while teaching, attending a committee meeting, eating lunch in a cafeteria, or going to see the dentist.  In addition to paying salaries for postdoctoral fellows, research technicians, and graduate students, faculty scientists must buy research supplies and equipment, get broken instruments repaired, and pay for many other research expenses (e.g., business travel, costs of publication, use of special research facilities on- and off-campus, etc.).  Thus, to conduct scientific research in a university, it is fundamentally necessary to obtain and maintain external research funding; without a research grant, laboratory research projects in universities now are nearly impossible.

           

            Although the federal government each year thankfully provides many billions of dollars to support experimental studies, the present research grant system in the US is not able to fund all the good proposals submitted by faculty scientists in universities.  Of those overjoyed applicants meriting an award, many receive only part of their requested budget.  The U.S. National Science Foundation, a very large federal agency offering research grants in nearly all branches of science and engineering, reports awarding research funds to only around 28% of the many thousands of investigators applying for research support each year [1]. 

            

            Today, the professional reputation of individual faculty scientists depends mostly on the total number of dollars brought in by their research grant award(s) each year.  It also is true that different universities compare their reputation for quality in education and scholarly prestige primarily on the basis of the annual total amount of external research grant awards generated by their faculty scientists.  Many universities seeking to elevate their financial profits from research grants now urge their science faculty to try to obtain a second or third external award (i.e., for a related or unrelated project); universities also can increase their profits from research grant awards simply by hiring more science faculty. 

            

            Failure to get a research grant renewed is no longer unusual, due to the ever-increasing large number of doctoral scientists vigorously competing for new and renewal funding.  Any such failure means a rapid loss of assigned laboratory space, loss of graduate students working with the faculty member, a diminished professional reputation, and the necessity to henceforth spend all of one’s time trying to get re-funded.  Although non-renewed faculty scientists can continue researching and publishing using supplies at hand, such activity usually declines to some small level within about one year of not being funded.  This unwelcome failure is a disaster that often causes a midcareer crisis (e.g., denial of promotion to tenured rank); having a second research grant does provide some welcome protection in this distressing situation.  

            

            Each and every faculty scientist is competing against each and every other scientist for a cut of the government pie.  While ordinary competition generally has good effects upon human activities, this most prominent of all science faculty efforts is so extensive and generates such high pressures that it must be termed a “hyper-competition”.  The hyper-competition for research grant awards downgrades collegiality, subverts collaborations, and encourages corruption; each of these has very destructive effects on the research enterprise.  Applying for a research grant always is very stressful; for each renewal application (i.e., after 3-5 years of supported research work), one must compete with a larger number of new and renewal applicants than was the case for the previous  application.  Since the consequences of dealing with the research grant system are so very important for the career progress of any faculty scientist, one might wonder why graduate students in modern science are not being required to also receive an MBA degree, in addition to their Ph.D.?  

 

There is an increasing tendency for faculty scientists to form research groups, ranging from 3 to over 100 individuals.  Joining a small research group means that the failure of one group member to get a renewal application funded does not either kill anyone within the group or stop the entire project from continuing.  Giant research groups typically are headed by a king or queen scientist, and can have their own building; these giant groups automatically provide more brains, more hands, more research grant money (from awards to multiple associated individuals), and more lab space than any individual scientist or small group can obtain.  In the large associations, group-think typically can become the usual condition; in such cases, the role of each individual doctoral scientist in the group often devolves into serving only as a highly educated technician, with little need for individual input, creative new ideas, or self-development.  Today’s research scientists who work as individual researchers in academia know they have a fragile status in the hyper-competition for research grants, and usually are extremely careful to select a niche project where there is little likelihood of competing with any giant research group; that mistake would be the kiss-of-death.  Although the federal granting agencies do currently endeavor to give initial awards for 3 years to many newly-appointed science faculty, they also seem to favor the funding of very large research groups; this is readily understandable, since such awards usually provide these agencies with a much firmer likelihood that the proposed studies will be completed on time, and, the anticipated research results will be found and published (i.e., because the proposed experiments actually have already been completed!).  

 

Inevitably, the former prominence of individual research scientists becomes diminished by any policies favoring the formation and operation of very large research groups.  The acknowledged curiosity and creative initiatives of individual researchers have been the main source for new ideas, new concepts, and new directions in science.  Basic research is the necessary progenitor of all the advanced technology arising in the modern world.  Both the granting agencies and the academic institutions should change their priorities and policies so as to increase and encourage, rather than decrease and discourage, the vital activity of individuals (i.e., young basic scientists) who contribute so importantly to research progress.  When basic research is de-emphasized or disfavored, so too is creativity in science also being diminished.

 

             Another negative aspect of the enlarged importance of money for today’s scientific research is the commercialization of experimental studies in modern universities.  Commercialism is widely accepted as the primary driver of research and development within industry; currently, it is being extended and expanded into all university research efforts (see my earlier post on “What is the Very Biggest Problem for Science Today?” in the Big Problems category).  Basic science thereby is increasingly diminished, and many efforts are being targeted toward some commercial development or industrial goal.  That scenario refuses to recognize the proven history that both applied research and engineering developments almost always follow from one or more preceding very basic experimental studies; those basic investigations typically have no practical usage foreseen at the time of their publication.  Many detailed examples, ranging from the transistor [e.g., 2] to paternity testing based on DNA technology with the polymerase chain reaction [e.g., 3,4], show that although some highly imaginative or theoretical idea for a new device or process might have stimulated much interest, very important commercial products only arise much later after the initial basic results are modified and developed by many applied research and engineering efforts. 

 

            Scientific research at universities now is only a business activity. have seen this perverse situation in person during my own career experiences, and believe that these problems and issues with money and university profits now have changed the very nature of being an academic scientist.  I can only conclude that money today is just about everything for scientific research at modern universities.  This new emphasis creates many secondary problems for science progress and puts many roadblocks in the way of individual research scientists.  The traditional goal of scientific research is to find more new knowledge, not to acquire more and more money.  Counting the number of dollars in research grants cannot be a valid and meaningful measure of the professional status and value of individual faculty scientists.  Readers should know that I am certainly not the only scientist to state all these views with dismay (e.g., A. Kuszewski, 2010.  What happened to creativity in science?  Available on the internet at:  http://www.science20.com/print/72577 ). 

 

[1]   National Science Foundation, 2013.  About funding.  Available on the internet at:

http://www.nsf.gov/funding/aboutfunding.jsp . 

[2]   Mullis, K.B., 1987.  Conversation with John Bardeen.  Available on the internet at:

http://www.karymullis.com/pdf/interview-jbardeen.pdf/ .

[3]  Universal Genetics DNA Testing Laboratory, 2013.  Paternity DNA test.  Available on the

internet at: http://www.dnatestingforpaternity.com/paternity-test.html .

[4]   Ingenetix, 2013.  Paternity testing.  Available on the internet at: 

http://www.ingenetix.com/en/paternaty-testing

 

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