A new University of Michigan study shows that when researchers share a building, and especially a floor, the likelihood of forming new collaborations and obtaining funding increases dramatically.
The findings have wide relevance to corporations, as well.
Our analyses clearly show that there are benefits to co-location, said Jason Owen-Smith, an associate professor of sociology and organizational studies.
Researchers who occupy the same building are 33 percent more likely to form new collaborations than researchers who occupy different buildings, and scientists who occupy the same floor are 57 percent more likely to form new collaborations than investigators who occupy different buildings, he said.
Owen-Smith is the lead author of a report titled A Tale of Two Buildings: Socio-Spatial Significance in Innovation (PDF file). The report details the findings of a two-year study funded by the U-M Office of the Vice President for Research, the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR), and the U-M Medical School.
For the study, the research team conducted surveys of 172 faculty and research staff members in three U-M buildings, and also used administrative data to assess collaboration and physical proximity. The buildings were the North Campus Research Complex (NCRC), the A. Alfred Taubman Biomedical Science Research Building and the Comprehensive Cancer Center.
One of the truly distinctive features of the University of Michigan is the exceptionally low barrier to doing interdisciplinary research, said Stephen Forrest, U-M vice president for research. This study gives insights into the benefits that such research brings and how interdisciplinarity, which is now at the forefront of scientific enquiry, is supported by such hubs as the North Campus Research Complex that brings researchers from many different disciplines into contact.
This study comes at an opportune moment when the NCRC is still an experiment-in-progress of larger scale collaborative research, said David Canter, NCRC executive director. The conclusions from this study are a reminder that a one-size-fits-all approach is not an optimal approach. Group dynamics and the benefits of chance interactions influence productivity and innovative ideas.
This kind of rigorous social science research is very much in the ISR tradition, said James S. Jackson, director of ISR. Similar principles were used by the ISR founders in designing the 1965 ISR building. We invested in this study in order to assist the NCRC but also to inform our decisions about how the new addition to the ISR-Thompson building, now under construction, can maximize interdisciplinary collaborations and success in achieving funding for research from a variety of external sources.
The study, which is the most extensive attempt to date to elucidate the socio-spatial dynamics of successful scientific research collaborations, tests assumptions about proximity and social networks that have stood unexamined for half a century.