Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Speaking of Science: Where do breakthroughs come from?

Speaking of Science
Talk nerdy to us

The idea of a lone genius toiling away in a lab to change the way we see the world has come to seem like an antiquated myth in the age of science by big teams. Collaborations are increasingly essential to solving complex scientific problems, whether it is understanding the genome, revealing the structure of the universe or untangling how the brain gives rise to thoughts, memory or illness.

Every fall, when the Nobel prizes are awarded -- to a maximum of three people each -- think-pieces abound about how the awards give the false impression that science is done by individuals, when in fact it is increasingly a collaborative, team effort. In 2017, when three scientists split the Nobel Prize in physics, one of them -- physicist Kip Thorne -- pointed out that "our marvelous discovery is the work of more than a thousand."

But a new Nature study that examined 42 million scientific papers, 5 million patents and 16 million software projects over several decades found that despite the current vogue for big team science, small teams still have an incredibly valuable role to play. Small teams, the researchers found, are more likely to produce disruptive, field-changing findings. Larger teams, on the other hand, are more likely to build on existing knowledge.

While the three team members who conducted the research diplomatically argue their study shows the value of both small-team and large-team science, the results push back against current trends.

Pierre Azoulay, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management, argued in a perspective article that the results "are a corrective to the zeitgeist that tends to view collaborations -- across laboratories and especially across disciplines -- as an inexorable trend that science funders should embrace and celebrate."

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