Scientists working alone or in groups; which is better?

December 5th, 2008 - 1:33 pm ICT by IANS  

New York, Dec 5 (IANS) Which is better: large, well-funded lab empires with many investigators working toward the same goal, or the scientist toiling alone at his desk?A Duke University engineer has proposed that the optimum situation is a balance between the “many” and the “one”. Institutions benefit the most from the co-existence of large groups that self-organise naturally and lone scientists coming up with new ideas.

Adrian Bejan, a professor at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, argues that while the trend at major universities is the creation of large research groups focused on a particular problem, the individual researcher will not disappear.

“The history of scientific achievement is marked by solitary investigators, from Archimedes to Newton to Darwin,” Bejan said in a Duke release.

“Solitary thinkers have flourished throughout history because it is natural - science is good for the mind of the thinker and for the well-being of society.”

“Even though the trend is toward the creation of large research groups, the individual will always flourish,” he added.

According to Bejan, the course of modern research changed abruptly after Oct 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union became the first nation in space by launching the satellite Sputnik. What ensued, especially in the US, was a national rush to organise a massive scientific response to counter the Soviets.

As the most recent “trigger” of change in the direction of research, Sputnik led to a dramatic increase in the funding of large research groups within institutions already known for their research.

This model was adopted by smaller institutions, which also began forming larger groups to attract funding, Bejan argued. Despite these trends, however, the individual investigator did not disappear, but thrived.

“Successful research groups are those that grow and evolve on their own over time,” Bejan said. “For example, an individual comes up with a good idea, gets funding, and new group begins to form around that good idea. This creates a framework where many smaller groups contribute to the whole.”

However, extremes at either end of the spectrum are not conducive to productive science.

Such an extreme example would be that of the old Soviet-style research, where the government decreed the goal and scope of research and populated its monolithic structures with like-minded scientists. The more efficient lab model would be one that grows naturally, without dictates from above, Bejan said.

His analysis, supported by the National Science Foundation, appears in the December issue of the International Journal of Design and Nature and Ecodynamics.

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