Science Works Just Like The Economy – Large Means Innovation, Small Means Invention


It might seem a little odd that large teams in science mean development while small teams lead to disruption and invention. Large teams have more brains, larger budgets, so we’d expect them to be able to create the big changes. Yet that’s not how it works as this new paper in Nature points out.

On the other hand when we look at the economy we find that large teams – large organisations, large companies – don’t do much invention, that disruption and new stuff. They are however just great at innovation, the ongoing process of tinkering to make that little bit better.

Once we know that large groups of people work much the same way, small ditto, we can see what’s going on here. We’ve found a property of groups of human beings, not something about science or even invention:

Large teams develop and small teams disrupt science and technology

Teams of humans seem to work much the same way in either commerce or science.

This shift in team size raises the question of whether and how the character of the science and technology produced by large teams differs from that of small teams. Here we analyse more than 65 million papers, patents and software products that span the period 1954–2014, and demonstrate that across this period smaller teams have tended to disrupt science and technology with new ideas and opportunities, whereas larger teams have tended to develop existing ones. Work from larger teams builds on more-recent and popular developments, and attention to their work comes immediately. By contrast, contributions by smaller teams search more deeply into the past, are viewed as disruptive to science and technology and succeed further into the future—if at all.

All of which poses a problem for those who would plan the economy. There’s nothing quite so large team as government determining what’s going to be done. Or even the slightly milder protestations of Mariana Mazzucato – that government should uncover and finance those inventions. Well, yes, possibly, but how can government uncover those small teams? It can’t, it’s only going to be able to deal with larger teams. Thus we might well get plenty of innovation from government but we’re not going to get the invention, the disruption.

As, indeed, we don’t. So, that’s that idea dead then.