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THE WORLD OF BIOLOGICAL RESEARCH tine community has. Yet, as each instrument has become available-e.g., ultraviolet spectrophotometers, electrophoresis apparatus, scintillation counters, electron microscopes, and multichannel recorders not long thereafter the scientists involved have wondered how they had ever made progress before these commercial instruments became available. As the markets grow, the instruments become more refined, more reliable, and more versatile, thereby enormously enhancing the reliability, sophistication, and ease of performance of biological research. The availability of such instruments has been made possible by the very scale of federal support of the life sciences. By creating a sufficient market, the manufacturer has, in turn, been able to achieve economies of large-scale production, keeping the unit cost and sales price down. (It is ironic that, although the electron microscope was developed by an American firm, and this country is the major market for this instrument, no American manufacturer now supplies it.) Nor should we fail to acknowledge our debt to our brethren in physics, chemistry, and engineering. From them came the electron microscope, spectrophotometers, the electron paramagnetic and nuclear magnetic reso- nance spectrometers, ultrasonic gear, the great variety of oscilloscopes, x-ray crystallographic analysis systems, the laser, telemetry, and a host of other devices. To their designers and developers, the biological community extends its gratitude. THE RESEARCH GROUP Research in the life sciences is "small science"; only rarely is it organized around some very large and expensive piece of apparatus or facility. Whereas much research in other areas of science revolves about large accel- erators, research vessels, telescopes, balloon-launching facilities, rocket facilities, or large magnets, for example, there are few parallels in the life sciences. Occasional exceptions include relatively elaborate hyperbaric facilities, primate colonies, colonies of germ-free animals, phytotrons or biotrons, biosatellites, museums, or marine-biology stations. But these are the exceptions rather than the rule, and even in these instances, the facilities in question are actually utilized by numbers of small research groups, each pursuing its own questions in its own way, while taking advantage of the availability of the facilities. In very few instances have the various groups that, collectively, used such a facility comprised a coordinated whole with common goals and objectives. The functional unit of research in the life sciences, therefore, usually consists of a principal investigator and the 257
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260 THE LIFE SCIENCES postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, and technicians who work with him. According to data collected by the Study of Postdoctoral Education of the National Academy of Sciences,* the mean such research group, in addition to the faculty member, is 6.1 members in academic biology de- partments, 7.6 in biochemistry departments, 5.3 in physiology departments, and 4.0 in clinical specialties. These may be compared with 5.8 members in physics and 8.3 in chemistry. When, however, research groups without postdoctorate are considered, these units are distinctly smaller, receding to 4.6, 3.9, and 4.0 in biology, biochemistry, and physiology, respectively, and 3.2 and 5.2 in physics and chemistry. This scale of operation was borne out by reports from the individual investigators surveyed in the study. For all pnucipal investigators, the mean was 6.5 persons per research group, in addition to the principal investigator himself, ranging from 4.4 for investigators engaged in studies of systematic biology to 8.0 for those studying disease mechanisms. Per- haps surprisingly, the sizes of groups were much the same in academic and nonacademic laboratones. Approximately equal numbers of co-investi- gators and professional staff are found in both classes of laboratones. The graduate students, who vary in academic laboratories from 1.5 to 4.0 students per group (the extremes being represented by morphology and behavioral biology, respectively), with an overall average for all biological disciplines of 2.2 students per group, are replaced in nonacademic labora- tones by technicians and other supporting staff. Thus, in general, the typical academic laboratory contains a principal investigator, a co-investigator, and one other scientist with a doctoral degree who may be a visiting scientist, postdoctoral fellow, or continuing research associate, two technicians, and two or three graduate students. Federal laboratories may have one or two postdoctorals in place of the graduate students, while industrial laboratories utilize additional technicians. The routine tasks of the laboratory are generally performed by the tech- nicians, while the graduate students and postdoctoral fellows serve as junior co-investigators and colleagues for the principal investigator. In our view, such a research group does indeed constitute something close to optimal for the conduct of "small science," particularly in the life sciences. Grad- uate students and postdoctorate are spared some of the drudgery of routine analyses after they have learned to perform such analyses and understand their limitations, and the total group combines a mixture of experience, expertise, ideas from other disciplines, and youthful enthusiasm. We can only conclude that, however haphazard the venous mechanisms by which such an enterprise is funded, the average working unit is sufficiently large k The Invisible University: Postdoctoral Education in the United States, Report of a Study Conducted under the Auspices of the National Research Council, National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C., 1969.