Large groups in science

Paul Graham wrote an essay that will get people talking: You Weren’t Meant to Have a Boss. The gist of the argument is that large groups like research centers, companies and universities are inefficient artificial constructs limiting people’s freedom. I believe this sentence says it all:

It will always suck to work for large organizations, and the larger the organization, the more it will suck.

Anyone who has worked in a large research projects knows that one of two things tends to happen. When the project is well structured, nothing interesting happens. Papers will get published, but no new insight will be produced. Sometimes the odd graduate student will have used his scholarship money to do something exciting, but he will have broken the rules by doing so. On the other hand, when the project has no strong leadership, people will tend to go work on their own and interesting results may come forth, but the big project will basically be an afterthought.

So, why do funding agencies keep on fostering large projects? Almost surely because it sounds good on paper, and it is easier to manage than a large number of small projects. I have yet to see any serious study showing that large projects are a better way to invest the tax payer’s money. Another argument I sometimes hear is that below-average researcher do better under the guidance of visionaries. I wonder whether any study supports this claim?

Do people in large research centers or large universities produce more? I think that you will find that highly productive groups in large centers work in small units that are largely independent of each other. Hence, I do not think that large centers or large universities are more productive. However, they may attract better people, mostly because going to work at a smaller place is riskier, Paul pointed out this problem:

The average MIT graduate wants to work at Google or Microsoft, because it’s a recognized brand, it’s safe, and they’ll get paid a good salary right away. It’s the job equivalent of the pizza they had for lunch.

I would add that a job at a larger place looks better on your resume. If, as a scientist, you choose to go work at a tiny university, people will assume, sometimes rightly so, that you were not offered a job at a larger organization.

As someone who worked at the largest research institution in Canada (by the number of researchers), I can tell you that large size does not make you better. Having access to a lot of smart people is nice, except that sharing an employer is not a great way to ensure fruitful communication. My own productivity was low until I started saying no to large projects. I find that I am most productive when I work on my own small projects with a few hand-picked people. I find that fighting to keep my freedom and independence is key to producing higher quality research.

Note. I don’t measure my own productivity solely by the number of papers written. Working 6 months on a single paper — as I have been doing recently — is not being unproductive, because we got interesting results all through the process. I don’t feel compelled to submit ten variants of the same paper to feel productive.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

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