When it comes to labs, is bigger always better? #science @NatureNews

Chris Woolston has written a nice feature in Nature this week titled, ‘Group dynamics: a lab of their own.’ The article describes many things a PI can consider when picking people for a lab, and how many people to pick. In his words:

Scientists around the world are working to solve the same basic formula: what number and mix of group members makes for the most efficient and productive lab?

As a member of a relatively large lab, where adding people to the group can come with many complaints from current members, I was intrigued by the actual data on productivity associated with adding members…

Bigger is better

Two studies published last year suggest that most labs could produce more papers and make a bigger splash by — perhaps unsurprisingly — bringing more people on board. One of these, a 2015 study of nearly 400 life-sciences PIs in the United Kingdom, found that the productivity of a lab — measured by the number of publications — increased steadily, albeit modestly, with lab size (I. Cook, S. Grange, & A. Eyre-WalkerPeerJhttp://doi.org/bcwf; 2015). In terms of sheer paper production, “it’s best for a lab to be as big as possible”, says co-author Adam Eyre-Walker, a geneticist at the University of Sussex, UK. Notably, the study found no sign that individual members become less productive or less efficient as labs grow. “Adding a team member to a large lab gives you the same return as adding one to a small lab,” Eyre-Walker says.

The second paper, a study of 119 biology laboratories from 1966 to 2000 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, found that productivity inched forward when an average-sized lab of ten members added people (A. Conti & C. C. Liu Res. Pol. 44, 16331644; 2015). But this study did detect limits: once lab size reached 25 people — an unusually high number achieved by very few labs — the addition of team members no longer conferred benefit. Further, a lab’s productivity tops out with 13 postdocs, the study found.

It looks as though my PI has created almost the perfect lab size. We are a bit over 25 with rotation students and technicians, but usually hover right around 13 postdocs… creepy. It turns out that their is some method, or at least data backing up, my PI’s madness.

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