It took $1.1 billion and a 1,000-strong team to prove Einstein right about gravitational waves. In 2016, the scientists behind the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, announced that they had finally detected these ripples in the fabric of space and time, formed by colliding black holes. “LIGO was a masterpiece of 21st-century engineering and science,” says James Evans, a sociologist at the University of Chicago who studies the history of science. “But it was perhaps the most conservative experiment in history. It tested a 100-year-old hypothesis.”
“Big science,” of which LIGO is a prime example, is becoming more common. Funding agencies are channeling more money toward ever larger teams working on grand projects such as cataloging the diversity of our cells or sequencing the genomes of all species. There’s even a growing field of meta-research dedicated to studying how teams work—the science of team science.
Some projects require these large teams, and three members of the LIGO team eventually won a Nobel Prize. But the comparative neglect of small teams and solo researchers is a problem, Evans says, because they produce very different kinds of work. He collaborated with his colleague Lingfei Wu to look at more than 65 million scientific papers, patents, and software projects from the past six decades. In every recent decade and in almost every field, Wu’s analysis found, small teams are far more likely to introduce fresh, disruptive ideas that take science and technology in radically new directions.