The course of modern research changed abruptly after Oct. 4,
1957, when the former Soviet Union became the first nation in
space by launching Sputnik, Bejan said. That fueled a dramatic
increase in U.S. funding of large research groups within
institutions already known for their research, he says. This
model was adopted by smaller institutions, which also began
forming larger groups to attract funding.
However, individual big thinkers didn't disappear. Bejan argues
they continued to thrive. He thinks his "constructal theory,"
which he began describing in 1996, might explain why.
The theory states that so-called flow systems evolve to balance
and minimize imperfections, reducing friction or other forms of
resistance, so that the least amount of useful energy is lost.
Examples in nature include rivers and streams that make up a
delta or the intricate airways of the lungs.
In research done by humans, Bejan sees two main flows: those of
ideas in the form of scientific findings, and those of support,
measured by tangible factors such as funding and lab space.
"Successful research groups are those that grow and evolve on
their own over time," he says. "For example, an individual comes
up with a good idea, gets funding, and new group begins to form
around that good idea. This creates a framework where many
smaller groups contribute to the whole."
Extremes are not conducive to productive science, Bejan thinks.
"If an institution is made up only of solitary researchers, it
would have many ideas but little support," he said. "On the
other hand, a group that is large for the sake of size would
have a lot of support, but would comparatively have fewer ideas
This problem was epitomized by the old Soviet-style research,
where the government decreed the goal and scope of research and
populated its monolithic structures with like-minded scientists,
There is no inherent conflict between research empires and the
individual, but rather a balance that serves the greater good,
as Bejan puts it. And so, institutional administrators should go
easy on the individual who shows signs of greatness.
"I would argue that those administrators who coerce their
colleagues into large groups solely to attract more funding, to
beef up their curriculum vitae or to generate more papers, are
acting against the self-organizing nature of the institution and
its research," Bejan said. "Complete coalescence into large
groups does not happen and will not happen."
Bejan's thinking, it should be noted, is supported by funding
from the National Science Foundation.
The next Einstein?
Some might argue that the nature of genius is such that it can't
be quashed, regardless.