Is Bigger Always Better?

Social distancing may have been reduced to 1(+)m – whatever that may mean – but that is still going to impose significant constraints on what a bench scientist can do. Fume cupboards in a line – how many of them can be accessed in a given session? How many shifts can you safely fit in during a day, with appropriate technical support to hand? How easily/safely can you clean a microscope between users, each of whom may only require a short time on the instrument? Can you train a new user to use some fancy piece of kit by Zoom and be sure they will have mastered all the intricacies so that the data gathered will have meaning?

Group leaders around the country will be pondering these questions – and many more of a similar ilk – as they try to reopen labs safely and ensure all their team can get back to the bench so the papers and theses can be put on track. There are many extremely anxious researchers anxiously waiting to get properly underway again. Theorists/computationalists will be in better shape. They may miss the evenings down the pub, the daily chatter and social contact that a departmental environment may provide scientists of most types, but they are probably – broadband permitting – still able to get on with their research. Zoom/Teams/Googlemeet (according to taste) works fine for exchange of ideas, even for sharing data or sketching diagrams (stylus or fat finger permitting), but I’m not convinced drinks (alcoholic or not) and chat over these same platforms offer great satisfaction. We are, after all, social creatures and human contact means more than viewing through a screen.

But, for experimentalists, the challenges remain severe. As labs start to reopen in Cambridge, the restrictions on who can enter a building to do their work remain substantial. So, which groups will find this hardest? And, if the coronavirus is not going away anytime soon, in the medium term, which groups will continue to be affected? In other words, can we get away from the fact that some large groups may find their students can’t get to the bench as often as anyone would like.

I would like to propose that – sticking with the adage not to waste a crisis – now is a good moment to think about whether bigger really is better. Journal impact factors – as a figure of merit – have become devalued, but group size and group income remain significant in decisions about people’s careers and, the tendency has been that bigger must mean more successful and therefore better. However, the evidence does not particularly back up that assumption. Maybe universities should reconsider policies at a fundamental level. Not just because of space limitations, not just because universities are going to be in financial straits and most research intensive universities have substantially relied on international students to cross-support their research teams, but also because the most original work does not, in practice, come out of the biggest groups.

Think about what is arguably the most successful lab in the country, Cambridge’s Laboratory for Molecular Biology, colloquially known as the LMB. I believe it has more Nobel prize winners than any other establishment (although not everyone would agree that that in itself is a useful figure of merit), but it has always restricted the size of group any group leader could operate.  Research also shows that small groups tend to be more innovative and disruptive, whereas large groups may do work that could be described as incremental. This finding may be seen as counterintuitive, since often large groups are conceived as being more productive, but I guess it depends on how you measure productivity: sheer numbers of papers written may be an inadequate measure.

It is also worth noting that the incoming UKRI CEO, Ottoline Leyser,also based in Cambridge and up till now Director of the Sainsbury Laboratory (studying plant biology) has recently told me that under her leadership this lab also sets a firm upper limit on group size. Maybe, as she takes up the reins at UKRI she will want to implement a smaller is better mantra across the funding bodies. She has a long track record of being concerned about well-being and support for researchers, and I look forward to seeing this awareness of the needs of the individual translate into policies around research culture that in turn translate into better support (pastoral rather than financial) for early career researchers.

I worry that large research groups allow bullies to flourish, because there is less oversight. The bully may be a fellow PhD student or postdoc who hogs equipment to the detriment of others; the one who sneers at someone because their first degree came from a ‘lesser’ university or exhibits egregious racist or gender attitudes in unseen ways. The bully may be the supervisor who expects a researcher to be at the bench 24/7 and refuses to admit that work-life balance has any place in a scientist’s life. But even without bullying, a large group may mean few opportunities for support, advice or mentoring to be given to each member individually.

I once had a postdoc who told me of his PhD supervisor who typically managed to catch up with him once a term. The trouble, I was told, was that the supervisor was so charming that all the list of grievances and problems stored up during that term were disarmed by the smile and words, without any rectification ensuing. That sort of charismatic remote figure is not particularly likely to deliver a useful training programme, albeit a layer of first-rate postdocs in the team might be able to substitute something of worth. Nor is such a group leader apparently giving any consideration to mentoring. In this particular case, once removed from his supervisor’s charm, the postdoc became very bitter about the treatment he had received and the lack of support.

Now, as labs reopen and thought must be given to how every group member can literally be fitted in, it seems appropriate to reflect on the larger existential question: is bigger really better for either science or the scientist?

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5 Responses to Is Bigger Always Better?

  1. Susan Lea says:

    Dear Athene
    I think it’s also important to note that the places that you praise for high output with restricted group size provide core funding for those groups. In my field, one reason for larger groups is to ensure sufficiently regular results to maintain grant funding – a small group will generate the results sufficiently erratically funding tends to collapse then boom – not good for science or anxiety. Core fund a small group for everyone and many would be happy to settle for that.

  2. I’m really thinking of groups of 20+, not unusual in some (sub) disciplines, and where it’s very hard to believe the PI has much time for individual supervision. I take your point about core funding, but I’m not sure that’s so relevant to these huge groups.

    • POLINA BAYVEL says:

      Critical mass is important …one cannot havd a world leading experimental group of one! Esp if one is competing with world leading labs!

  3. I know four Nobel prizewinners quite well. Most of their work they did themselves, Two-author papers were the norm for them. They are my role models. See, for example, http://www.dcscience.net/2007/08/03/how-should-universities-be-run-to-get-the-best-out-of-people/

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