Let need, not ego, matter for allocating research space

Remember your first bench? Was it a place to dump field gear? Was it 6 feet of black magic with shelves above for carefully labeled and dated orange-capped bottles? Did you line up your vortexer with your pipetteman rack? Did you paper it over, or leave it gleaming? When you became a PI how many of those benches did you get in your new space? Did you share? How does space get allocated anyway?

A friend moved his research lab three times in about ten years at the same institution. The moves were to different floors of a huge building and brought him into contact with new neighbors. This intellectual stirring might have its own advantages, but what about the disruptive costs? I recall him telling of some experiments that took months to work after a move. We had similar issues with the more drastic move two states away.

Why did my friend have to move so often? It was because he is in a medical school where space was allocated strictly by grant dollars. Instead of shredding his space into tiny disjunct labs, like a farmer with too many heirs, they moved the whole thing as his funding soared. But dollars per square foot is not the only way to determine space.

Number of people makes a lot of sense as a determiner of space. After all, doesn’t each person need their own bench? Our own department is asking about people as we plan for expanding numbers but not space. But even this is not an unambiguous metric. What if you are at the bench only 20% of your work week? Could you share then?

Some research takes more space. In our lab, for example, we often have every surface covered with Petri plates because stacking them more than three or four changes their characteristics. There are certainly other solutions to this problem, but some research really does take up more space even for a given number of dollars or people.

We could allocate space according to age, or according to power or fame. After all, don’t younger people need more space because they have growing careers and have not yet learned to be efficient? But however we allocate benches and walls, us status sensitive humans will interpret it as an indication of rank. How much less space could we make do with if we could somehow break its connection to power?

If we break the tie between space and status, then we don’t need to worry so much about exactly how it is assigned, because it isn’t handed out at all. One popular solution is the open laboratory, with multiple group leaders sharing contiguous space, adding or subtracting fluidly. This can work if the people working in the shared space are not slobs. It can also be a disaster.

I will be controversial if I say most people can probably do with less space, even much less space. After all, many of our tools are miniature versions of their former selves. We share many core facilities also. Where we think, write, and read should not be in the research lab because that space may be hazardous and is certainly more expensive. Just try to remember that your space is not an indicator of your worth. Innovate by being small, not large!


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Department politics, Life in a biology department, Organization of a scientist and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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