A quantitative characterization of the scale-dependent features of research units may provide important insight into how such units are organized and how they grow. The relative importance of top-down versus bottom-up controls on their growth may be revealed by their scaling properties. Here we show that the number of support staff in Scandinavian research units, ranging in size from 20 to 7,800 staff members, is related to the number of academic staff by a power law. The scaling exponent of approximate to 1.30 is broadly consistent with a simple hierarchical model of the university organization. Similar scaling behavior between small and large research units with a wide range of ambitions and strategies argues against top-down control of the growth. Top-down effects, and externally imposed effects from changing political environments, can be observed as fluctuations around the main trend. The observed scaling law implies that cost-benefit arguments for merging research institutions into larger and larger units may have limited validity unless the productivity per academic staff and/or the quality of the products are considerably higher in larger institutions. Despite the hierarchical structure of most large-scale research units in Europe, the network structures represented by the academic component of such units are strongly antihierarchical and suboptimal for efficient communication within individual units.
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