Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A questionable fascination with size
Recently there was news that U.S. researchers have presented a large project in the field of brain research. A few weeks ago, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), part of the Swiss Institute of Technology, also announced a major project in the same field. Both projects are budgeted to cost billions.

Surely one must hope that the more money (and minds!) is invested in a research project, the greater the chance to achieve breakthrough results. The anticipated output may therefore justify these large expenses. In addition, there are areas of research that require big projects because a large and expensive infrastructure is necessary, as for for example the CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire) in Geneva.
But one should not ignore the flip side of this:

First, size is no guarantee for success. How many scientific discoveries have been made by individuals or, more recently, by small research teams? Small groups can stimulate and combine leading representatives of a field in good harmony, complementing each other without needing billions.

Major projects also carry the risk of binding financial and human resources that then lack elsewhere. "Peripheral areas of research" are neglected. This phenomenon is well known from pharmaceutical companies, where research often focuses on profitable "me-too" products, while little or no research is done on rare diseases (orphan drugs). Thus, the diversity of research can be at stake.

Furthermore, we must not forget the prestige effect of large projects. Only those who have a major project gain status in the scientific community. The ranking of universities might soon be done according to how many major research projects an institution has, and how big these are. The statement of someone involved in a major American project that the label "large project" is a major sales pitch, catches one’s attention in any case.

Finally, one must not forget that a large project also  requires a great coordination and control effort. If, for example, a hundred or more million francs are spent as in the above mentioned projects, no one can afford not to make annual or even quarterly rigorous controls, reports and justifications. Thus considerable resources and precious research time are used for administrative work and coordination meetings. In addition, administrators begin to influence projects and results.

One should therefore not be blinded by the publicity large projects get. "Big" is not automatically "great".

Sybille Sachs

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