Commentary / World

Big teams rarely come up with innovations

by Faye Flam

Bloomberg

Moments of great scientific disruption aren’t necessarily glamorous. A world-changing idea might spring up when someone is sitting in an office or scrawling notes, or maybe riffing with a colleague. (Those few colorful stories of Newton’s apple and Archimedes’ bathtub are probably apocryphal.)

Big projects leave more vivid impressions — landing on the moon, testing atom bombs, or, more recently, finding the Higgs boson and detecting Einstein’s predicted gravitational waves using a pair of sprawling but stunningly precise detectors. The paper announcing the Higgs boson boasted 5,000 authors, the one on gravitational wave detection, 1,011 authors. So why bother with small projects at all?

A new analysis suggests the papers that spawn whole new branches of science most often spring from lone researchers or small groups, and the more innovative and disruptive the findings, the smaller the teams. Big teams are still needed for some kinds of tasks, but the most successful of them either test an existing hypothesis or conduct some feat of applied science, such as turning the principle of nuclear fission into a bomb.

The small team of three people who recently published the team size analysis in Nature took advantage of a massive database containing 65 million documented advances — scientific papers, patents and software products.

How do you measure disruption? Dashun Wang of the University of Chicago said they looked for a telltale pattern in the way a paper was cited in subsequent work. He and his colleagues reasoned that the more innovative papers would be cited without the older studies that they themselves cited. That would suggest these papers weren’t continuing along known branches, but had started new ones. Less disruptive papers, by contrast, would be cited along with a string of previous work.

As an example, they point to a paper introducing a new phenomenon called self-organized criticality, which was cited without the trail of previous citations — and indeed it launched a new branch of research. The disruptive papers also get cited longer into the future — even if they have lower impact at first.

“We realized as team size increases, the character of the work they produce systematically changed,” said Wang. When they tracked individual scientists, they found the same person had more disruptive impacts when part of smaller teams than when part of larger ones.

This comes at a time when small science needs some respect. As measured by the initial burst of early citations, the highest-impact papers have switched from those with individual authors to teams, said Laszlo Barabasi, a network scientist at Northeastern University.

“The problem is that funding agencies and foundations are in love with big science teams. These bring instant gratification,” he said, through their sheer ambition and co-mingling of big names.

In science, the most revolutionary ideas don’t mean much until there’s experimental confirmation, and there was no way to confirm either the Higgs boson or gravitational waves without gigantic projects. Big projects employing thousands of people work well when their goal is to prove an existing idea, or to apply an existing idea to a needed task. And the result can go beyond the initial stated goal — the Large Hadron Collider used to detect the Higgs is more than just an experiment, but an instrument for exploring inner space, and the LIGO experiment credited with finding gravitational waves is now an observatory poised to detect colliding black holes and other exotic phenomena.

Where the big team approach failed badly was at the now defunct blood-testing company Theranos, whose rise and fall was chronicled in the book “Bad Blood.” The company’s founder, Elizabeth Holmes, had a goal — to make blood testing easier and cheaper, substituting a finger stick for a vein draw. What she didn’t have was an idea for how to do this. The lack of a scientific or technological breakthrough didn’t discourage investors from pouring in billions, but even with several well-outfitted labs and hundreds of people set to the task, that key innovation never materialized.

The moon shot and the Manhattan Project are often held up as banners for the power of big science, but this may be misguided. Historian Alex Wellerstein, quoted in Scientific American, put it this way: “Almost every week someone, somewhere calls for a new Manhattan Project. Apparently we need a Manhattan Project for cancer, for AIDS, for health, for solar power … for cybersecurity, for nutritional supplements and most literally for protecting the island of Manhattan from sea level rise.”

The problem, as Wellerstein saw it, was that these new calls for a new Manhattan Project were aimed at answering scientific questions while the original Manhattan Project was aimed at applying a new scientific idea, nuclear fission, to bombs. The science behind it was found by pairs and individuals, not making big explosions, but doing the mundane-looking task of thinking.

Science writer Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She has written for The Economist, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Psychology Today, Science and other publications. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology.