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Why not more small, intense research teams?

by eg1 min read5th Aug 20219 comments

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Why are we not fostering more teams of say 2-5 people that 

a) work full-time on the same or closely related problems

b) live together or very close

c) spend most of their work time collaborating in-person

?

I'm aware of student groups etc. but these fail both a) and c).

Plausibly this has advantages over both individuals (more perspectives, motivation, etc.) and larger orgs (tighter feedback loops and communication, more flexibility, much easier to hire, etc.).

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I could see this working in a joint venture type of situation, but it fundamentally conflicts with the "work to live" philosophy. If I was a member of a research team in my profession (Mechanical Engineering) and this situation was proposed for a R&D group, I would adamantly oppose it. Collaborative working, in my experience, is inefficient. It makes much more sense to compartmentalize work, then upon completion, combine modules into a finished product. A certain amount of communication is required, but the process in not encumbered with meetings and group discussions. A fully collaborative organization, to me, presents a clear end-of-line scenario for my employment with any company. 

I have noticed that, even on a rationalist forum, a lot of ideas like this aren't very realistic. A vanishingly small minority of people associate so strongly with their work that they would be willing to completely forfeit their personal life in order to further a business which they essentially have no stake in.

When I show up to work, I am there to get a job done. I don't subscribe to the culture of going out to drinks with co-workers and I certainly don't sacrifice my personal time and work-life balance in order to make my boss more money.

On the internet, I think that people hold the (incorrect) notion that there are groups of people profiting from noble and exciting business ventures of their own creation. In reality, there is no market for the betterment of mankind. 

I'm working with one other person (Nuño Sempere), though we're on different continents, and our work requires fairly little interaction. This is on behalf of QURI. I've been considering expanding, but have been hesitant so far.

Some thoughts:

  1. Working with 1-4 others for 3+ years often requires you to work on fairly specialized problems, which means that the job market is limited. It's difficult to find people who really want to make the investment necessary to gamble their careers on such issues.
  2. Often having a loose network of collaborators is better than narrow teams, in Academia. This supports a bunch of different arrangements.
  3. I agree with Dustin about many of the best, most innovative people, being fairly disagreeable.
  4. There's little pressure to really join up sometimes. If people are interested in different topics, it's not clear which clusters should represent long-term research efforts, and exactly what these clusters should be for a long period of time. Many researchers are interested in weird collections of things.
  5. Living directly with your boss/manager is kind of weird. Done a bit in silicon valley, but I have mixed feelings here.

A few things would need to happen for there to be a good group of 2-5 over time:

  1. There needs to be a clear goal or specific area
  2. There needs to be several people who are very excited about working primarily on that goal for a long period of time
  3. These people need to be very strong (to get funding)
  4. These people must enjoy working with other people
  5. These people must enjoy and be helped by working with each other
  6. There probably should be at least one person who is willing to do managerial/operational duties, and is a good fit for it

I sometimes wonder about this. One hypothesis I have is that some not-insignificant portion of the intelligent, technical sort of people that would work on the types of projects I have in mind are also more likely to either a) not be pleasant people to be around for extended periods or b) don't like being around other people for extended periods.

Full disclosure, I barely tolerate living with my wife and kid! (I say in a serious/not-serious way) So I'm kind of imagining a lot of people like me.

Quite a lot of the intelligent rationalist people in the Bay area live in group houses. While that's certainly not true for all rationalists there are a lot that like the group house setting.

2Dustin3moDefinitely! I didn't mean to imply there were none of these types of people willing to live with others. In fact, if my hypothesis has some truthiness to it, I think I would expect some sort of bimodal distribution.

Doesn't it become too restrictive to work independently in small teams once the work requires significant resources (technology, specialized equipment, access to outside expertise, singular laboratory conditions, etc etc)? With good reason graduate students to find a place in the most advanced, cutting edge faculty.

Consider. Just on its own, the relatively small Clinical Medicine (Engineering) "school" at Cambridge University has 36,000 ($200 million) clinical and medical devices at one of its sites. Plus access through the Department of Engineering to billions of dollars equipment through the Engineering faculty itself; not to mention sabbatical exchanges etc etc.

Not every project needs access to expensive equipment in specialized labs, I guess. And coding can work using small teams.

But anything involving physical/natural science tech is increasingly out of reach to enthusiastic hobby groups working in their proverbial garden sheds. Am I wrong?

In my experience, this worked extremely well. But that was thanks to really good management and coordination which would've been hard in other groups I used to be part of.

1 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 3:19 PM

This describes the LessWrong team, and some other startups I've known of. The sense I've gotten is that most people either don't see the appeal or aren't willing to make that large a commitment? (Living with your teammates is a pretty big commitment, especially if you have other parts of your life, like a partner or kids.) Or, well, I think for the most part, people are working within the standard view of what an organization looks like and just don't think of this option.