Lab size – is bigger always better?

A ton of blog posts and a few papers have been written on the issue of the optimal size of a biomedical research lab. If you would like a nice digest, see this Youtube video by Jon Lorsch, the director of one of the NIH institutes. Jon makes a very good case for smaller labs. They allow for more diversity, better mentoring, are more efficient with their use of funds. Unfortunately, almost all incentives in academia are for group leaders to have bigger labs. The PI of  a larger group has more security in terms of funding and employment, more prestige, more negotiating power in almost any situation. Almost no one in academia looks at how efficient in terms of output per dollar a group is – they invariably look at the total output of the lab, ie. the total number/prestige/citations of pubs where the PI is senior author. Similarly, no one looks at how well the PI’s trainees do on average – they only look at the few superstars that have come out of the lab.
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Big lab vs. small lab

There was an external audit at the Nencki Institute (my current workplace) today, and among others the question of the optimal lab size was brought up in the discussion. I have blogged on this issue before, but more in the context of what is best for the PI. Here the issue was more about what is better for the Institute and its employees – do we promote early independence and let the more senior people have their own labs, or do we keep them as postdocs for as long as possible granting them some independence, but still under the umbrella of one big lab or another.
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PI as a CEO pt. 2

As a follow-up to my earlier musings, the scientist-CEO hybrid that is the lab PI must sooner or later face some hard decisions. Assuming they are successful and can attract a lot of funding, they will have to figure out what size lab they want to have. The answer “as big as possible” is the straightforward way to go for many PIs, but I don’t know if that’s always the right answer. Having a huge lab sure has advantages – you are almost always guaranteed funding and GlamorMag publications, you are constantly given honors, invited to speak at meetings etc., but all that comes at a price. A head of a big lab (>15-20 people) quickly loses touch with the day-to-day operations. They spend half of their time away at conferences and invited talks, and the other half scrambling to figure out where the hell the projects in the lab are going. From what I’ve heard from people that worked in such “paper factories”, the lax leadership leads to a lot of frustration on the part of trainees, i.e. grad students and postdocs, who fall prey to in-lab politics and their ambitious but unscrupulous colleagues. Continue reading