Although the field has a long collaborative tradition, immunology has made less use than genetics of 'consortium biology', wherein groups of investigators together tackle large integrated questions or problems. However, immunology is naturally suited to large-scale integrative and systems-level approaches, owing to the multicellular and adaptive nature of the cells it encompasses. Here, we discuss the value and drawbacks of this organization of research, in the context of the long-running 'big science' debate, and consider the opportunities that may exist for the immunology community. We position this analysis in light of our own experience, both positive and negative, as participants of the Immunological Genome Project. © 2012 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved.