Large well-funded laboratories…

Your intuition is probably that large well-funded research laboratories produce more research…

One part of this intuition is flat out wrong. Small teams are consistently more productive:

(…) small sized laboratories are more productive. This result is consistent with the results previously obtained in the literature (…) (Carayol and Matt, 2004)

And while abundant funding does help to produce more papers, there are not necessarily better ones. And the increase in productivity (a few percentage points per million dollars) is lower than you might think. Moreover, not all funding sources have a positive outcome. Earmarked or infrastructure funding may lead to lower quality research.

(…) the receipt of an NIH research grant (worth roughly $1.7 million) leads to only one additional publication over the next five years, which corresponds to a 7% increase. (…) (Jacob and Lefgren, 2011)

Public contractual funding (per permanent researcher) is the only significant funding variable: It plays positively on the publication intensity (not weighted for impact) [but] its impact is rather low. (Carayol and Matt, 2006)

As a first approximation, increasing federal research funding on the margin results in more, but not necessarily higher quality, research output. (Payne and Siow, 2003)

Conclusion: Small teams receiving maybe modest amounts of funding are probably a winning recipe most of the times. It is also a model that is compatible with professors doing hands-on work and having time to teach. We should be skeptical of large centralized projects in research.

Published by

Daniel Lemire

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

4 thoughts on “Large well-funded laboratories…”

  1. @Leonid

    I do not think that large teams are intrinsically less efficient. For example, McDonald’s is a lot better at making burgers than a small restaurant might be. Walmart is crazily efficient compared to an family store.

    If you think about it, large laboratories do enjoy tremendous benefits. They should be a lot more productive. What happens is that there are specific mechanisms that counteract this increase in productivity.

  2. @Daniel,

    this is right! It is possible to achieve economies of scale, when you deal with simple repetitive tasks.

    Research isn’t one of such tasks. Oftentimes, people are working on problems that never appeared before.

    To build a building, you generally know what to do. There is a methodology, building code, etc… Intellectual activity is unpredictable and projects are always well over the budget.

    So, in a large team, it is always possible to find excuses not to work. Worse, you may not even notice that you work slowly and inefficiently, because there is no baseline.

  3. It honestly doesn’t surprise me that smaller labs or teams are more efficient! The bigger, well-funded stuff probably tends to get bogged down in bureaucracy, and the amount of people handling things probably leads to a lot of confusion about who does what.

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