Leader: Goldilocks had the right idea

Rather than assuming bigger is better, we must trial research laboratory effectiveness before concluding which size is just right

November 22, 2012

How big is too big? It's a question that has been raised very publicly in recent weeks by the crisis at the BBC.

The disastrous episode, and downfall of the BBC's director-general George Entwistle, was triggered by the revelations about Jimmy Savile, of course, but the crisis was then compounded by appalling editorial decisions as the corporation flailed wildly in its attempts to get a grip on the scandal.

Commentators have been quick to suggest that this episode - the now infamous axeing of a Newsnight investigation into Savile's activities late last year and the more recent botch job by the same programme, which accused an innocent man of paedophilia - is down in no small part to the broadcaster's size and structure, with layers of management failing to take the situation by the scruff of the neck and accept personal responsibility for its output.

Entwistle, critics said, did not know what was going on and was editor-in-chief in name only. The director-general's job was simply too big for one person to do.

The size question is raised in a very different context in our lead feature this week, which looks at lab size and how it relates to the quality and quantity of output, control of research misconduct and the funding of less established research teams.

Research concentration is often seen in terms of institution-level shifts of cash from the small and teaching-focused to the large and research-intensive. But another aspect is the increasing tendency for senior, successful academics to be showered with more and larger grants while less successful or more junior colleagues scrape by on the scraps.

Funders have lined up to announce that they will give out fewer - but larger - grants to allow the best researchers to carry out world-leading research with fewer financial constraints.

But critics contend that such concentration only increases the tendency for these stars to amass large research teams that they cannot hope to manage effectively - leading to poor productivity, lower-quality science and higher-than-average instances of scientific misconduct.

In an era of shrinking budgets and apparently increasing scientific misconduct, the question of which of these arguments is correct looms large.

One bone of contention is whether the means we have of identifying the best researchers - scrutiny of their publication record and peer review of their proposals - are sufficiently robust to justify a funder putting all its eggs in their basket.

Another is whether one person can indeed manage a lab of 50 people such that its productivity, integrity and research excellence - however measured - are at least, per capita, as good as in a lab of five or 10 people.

As our feature reveals, feelings run high on both sides of the argument but hard evidence remains frustratingly scant.

Given the crucial importance of the question for funding strategies, it is a pity that more grant-giving agencies do not appear to have followed the lead of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences in the US and tried to compare the effectiveness of the labs it funds relative to the amount of funding they receive.

Not everyone is the same, and doubtless some principal investigators are capable of effectively managing labs containing scores of people, but evidence-based generalisations are still surely a better base for policy than mere anecdote and gut instinct.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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