Last year, when I was giving the colloquium in Jyväskylä, my host introduced me as "leading the quantum gravity group at Nordita." I didn't object since it's correct to the extent that I'm leading myself, more or less successfully. However, the clustering of physicists into groups with multiple persons is a quite interesting emergent feature of scientific communities. Quantum gravity for example is usually taken to mean quantum gravity excluding string theory, a nomenclature I complained about earlier.
In the literature on the sociology of science it is broadly acknowledged that scientists, as other professionals, naturally segregate into groups to accomplish what's called a "cognitive division of labor": an assignment of specialized tasks which allows the individual to perform at a much higher level than they could achieve if they had to know all about everything. Such a division of labor is often noticeable already on the family level (I do the tax return, you deal with the health insurance). Specialization into niches for the best use of resources can also be seen in ecosystems. It's a natural trend because it's a local optimization process: Everybody dig a little deeper where you are and get a little more.
The problem is of course that a naturally occurring trend might lead to a local optimum that's not a global optimum. In the case of scientific communities the problem is that knowledge which lies at the intersection of different areas of specialization is not or not widely known, but there is a potential barrier preventing the community from making better use of this knowledge. This is unfortunate, because information relevant to progress goes unused. (See for example P. Wilson, “Unused relevant information in research and development,”. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 45(2), 192203 (1995).)
So this is the rationale why it's necessary to encourage scientists to look out of their box, at least on occasion. And that takes some effort because they're in a local optimum and thus generally unwilling to change anything.
This brings me back then to the grouping of researchers. It does not seem to me very helpful to reach a better global optimum. In fact, it seems to me it instead that it makes the situation worse.
Social identity theory deals with the question what effect it has to assign people to groups; a good review is for example Stryker and Burke “The Past, Present, and Future of an Identity Theory”, Social Psychology Quarterly, Vol. 63, No. 4 (Dec., 2000),
pp. 284-297. This review summarizes studies that have shown that the mere act of categorizing people as group members changes their behavior: When assigned a group, one that might not even be meaningful, they favor people in the group over people outside the group and are trying to fit in. The explanation that the researchers put forward is that "after being categorized of a group membership, individuals seek to achieve positive self-esteem by positively differentiating their ingroup from a comparison outgroup."
This leads me to think, it cannot be helpful to knowledge discovery to assign researchers at an institute to a handful of groups. It is also very punched-paper in the age of social tagging.
A suggestion that I had thus put forward some years ago at PI was to get rid of the research groups altogether and instead allow researchers to chose keywords that serve as tags. These tags would contain the existing research areas, but also cover other interests, that might be black holes, networks, holography, the arrow of time, dark matter, phase transitions, and so on. Then, one could replace the groups on the website with a tag cloud. If you click on a keyword, you'd get a list of all people who've chosen this tag.
Imagine how useful this would be if you were considering to apply. You could basically tell with one look what people at the place are interested in. And if you started working there, it would be one click to find out who has similar interests. No more browsing through dozens of individual websites, half of which don't exist or were last updated in 1998.
I was thinking about this recently because Stefan said that with better indexing of abstracts, which is on the way, it might even be possible in the not-so-far future to create such a tag-cloud from researcher's publication list. Which, with an author ID that lists institutions, could be mostly automatically assembled too.
This idea comes with a compatibility problem though, because most places hire applicants by group. So if one doesn't have groups, then the assignment of faculty to committees and applicants to committees needs to be rethought. This requires a change in procedure, but it's manageable. And this change in procedure would have the benefit of making it much easier to identify emerging areas of research that would otherwise awkwardly fit neither here nor there. Which is the case right now with emergent gravity and analogue gravity, just to name an example.
I clearly think getting rid of institutional group structures would be beneficial to research. Alas, there's a potential barrier that's preventing us from making such a change, a classic example of a collective action problem. However, I am throwing this at you because I am sure this restructuring will come to us sooner or later. You read it here first :o)