By Kevin Meyer
Fascinating article in the European edition of the Wall Street Journal last week on how scientific research is being performed by larger and larger teams, and the complexity and complications that creates.
The [Large Hadron Collider] atom smasher is so large that a brief status report lists 2,900 authors, so complex that scientists in 34 countries have readied 100,000 computers to process its data, and so fragile that a bird dropping a bread crust can short-circuit its power supply – as occurred earlier this month.
Its large research teams operate on such an elaborate scale that project management has become one of science’s biggest challenges.
Of course that’s an exceptionally large project, but an overall trend is beginning to forma as well.
Once a mostly solitary endeavor, science in the 21st century has become a team sport. Scientists are experimenting with the new technology of teamwork even in mathematics, where researchers customarily work alone.
To gauge the rise of team science, management experts [uh oh…] at Northwestern University recently analyzed 21 million U.S. patents filed since 1975 and all of the 19.9 million research papers archived in the Institute for Scientific Information database. “… we found that all fields were moving heavily toward teamwork,” says Northwestern business sociologist Brian Uzzl.
Team science can get rather bizarre… if not dysfunctional. Let’s return to the Large Hadron Collider…
Its science teams, drawing on independent researchers, resources and funds from 150 universities and dozens of government agencies, already transcend the physics of conventional management.
Strictly speaking, no one is in charge.
Consider Tejinder Virdee, who occupies the top spot in the organizational chart of the collider’s Compact Muon Solenoid Detector – an intricate 12,500-ton device the size of a medieval cathedral. At least 3,600 people from 183 institutes in 38 countries are involved. Ordinarily, Dr. Virdee might exercise considerable exeutive authority. Instead, he carries the misleading title of “spokesperson.” He was elected by researchers to negotiate with other groups on their behalf.
This concept extends to something of an extreme.
All around the collider, research groups organized themselves in democratic cooperatives, arranged in an anti-hierarchy. All deliberately are open – and exhaustive. Everyone gets their say no matter how long it takes.
“The entire collaboration will be authors of each and every publication,” says Andrew J. Lankford, the ATLAS deputy spokesperson.
Consider that for a moment. We like to tell you about innovative leadership structures, and this definitely is one.
But once again, is ensuring inclusion also effective?