The value proposition of unplanned social interactions….

The Blogosphere remains in its extended excitable state over the announcement from Yahoo’s CEO, Marissa Mayer on working from home (for background see here). The conventional wisdom on the reasoning behind her edict lies in the notion that somehow physical proximity among co-workers promotes productivity–a meme that is also central to the Bell Labs myth, recently chronicled expertly by Jon Gertner in his book, the Idea Factory: Bell Labs and The Great Age of American Innovation.

Today, this idea of a creative soup coming out of random physical human interactions was taken a step further in John Kay’s FT opinion piece, where he posits that New York City’s greatness comes as a result of the density of those human face-to-face moments.

In science, the empirical evidence does seem to support this notion of synergies arising out of researchers working closely in the same space. The entire village of Woods Hole, with its illustrious contributions to biological discovery over the last century bear witness to this idea. The Bethesda intramural campus of the National Institutes of Health and the relatively new Janelia Farm Campus of HHMI also have a similar cultural norms embedded in their scientific DNA.

And certainly the same is true for George Mason’s Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study. Our beautiful facility’s great room was designed with the goal of bringing our diverse scientific staff together. Many of the break out spaces throughout the Institute have the same idea in mind, although they are certainly less formal. The new Phase III addition of the Institute will take this notion even further.

From a theoretical standpoint, the key insights that lead to consequential scientific discovery are usually serendipitous. They arise, often not from a deductive logical progression, but rather from clues distributed like a trail of breadcrumbs. Those clues, many times, come from the laboratories of other investigators–and when those laboratories are physically close, the frequency of “clue exchange” goes way up. The analogy of genetic recombination seems particularly appropriate when thinking about the advantages of such unintended scientific sociality.

On the other hand, I am not convinced that if you build it, they will come. There needs to be a scientific culture which explicitly rewards such exchanges and both the inputs and outputs of such a scientific system need to be measured–I’m convinced this was one of Bell Lab’s secrets. Here at Krasnow, we are working to reify the reward-side of that equation.

Top down directives of the type Ms. Mayer gave at Yahoo seem to be less successful in science. At least one of our sister scientific centers existed for years with the rule that all scientific staff were required to dine with one another under the watchful eye of the famous founder. That place is now winding down with not so much to show for the luncheon kabuki theater.

Instead, what seems to work, is an enjoyable (and dense) workplace environment that allows for lots of unstructured work experimentation in combination with unstructured play. Google’s campus jumps to mind in this respect, but also too Woods Hole (again). Under these circumstances, there are lots of opportunities to sample the breadcrumbs of ones colleagues…

So to sum up: yes physical proximity is good, but only if it happens organically from the bottom up. I’m skeptical about the Yahoo story…

Science: hobby for the wealthy?

That’s what it was often in the 19th century before public funding took root. And that’s what it may be again if such funding collapses in the future. Docked at the WHOI pier this morning is this research vessel owned by the Schmidt Ocean Institute…as in Eric Schmidt of Google fame. Typically this class of research vessel would have been paid for by a government research agency such as the National Science Foundation–no longer. The RV Falkor is perhaps a window into the future of science: back to the future.

Disciplinary retreat

As in retreating to one’s disciplinary silo. Not a good thing, but unfortunately all too common in challenging funding environments. In an email exchange this morning, several of us have been discussing how important transdisciplinary research really is. One of my faculty members pointed out that it’s the really unconventional stuff that’s getting support right now. That’s the science that has tendrils across disciplines…as in a blend.

And now, in the tradition of Andrew Sullivan’s Blog, here’s the view outside my office window here in Woods Hole…

Beyond the oceanographic research vessels you can see the island of Martha’s Vineyard.

Off to Woods Hole

When tomorrow arrives,  I’ll be driving up the East Coast in my annual trek to the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) on Cape Cod. Over the next week, as editor of The Biological Bulletin, I’ll be immersing myself in what surely seems to be the global summer nexus of life sciences–a place where I got off to my own start as a scientist some 35 years ago.

Krasnow Institute scientific life is incredibly enriched by the successive generations of MBL alumni who make up our faculty, postdocs and graduate students. The MBL experience is always life-changing, both in its ability to kindle a life-long exhilaration towards science, but also in teaching a love of basic science–understanding nature better for pure sake of increasing human knowledge.

To Woods Hole…

Tomorrow, I’m off for my annual visit to the Marine Biological Laboratory at the south western tip of Cape Cod on a narrow peninsula between Buzzard’s Bay and Vineyard Sound. It’s a place I’ve been visiting for more than thirty years and is the publisher of the 100+ year old journal I edit, The Biological Bulletin.

Our August issue, this year will be a “virtual” symposium with articles focused on the fascinating biological phenomenon of regeneration, the process by which animals recover form and function after either injury or some normal physiological process.

In the meantime, it will nice to see old colleagues and even, as has become more common, one of our current doctoral students here in Mason’s neuroscience PhD program. MBL’s summer courses are the very best in the world–they are life changing for young scientists–and in an extraordinarily positive way.

When I return to Mason, next Monday, it will mark pretty much the end of summer–another two weeks and the Fall semester will begin, with all the excitement and increased activity that goes with the beginning of the academic year.

Junuary–when June meets Cape Cod weather

That’s what they call June in Woods Hole because it’s usually pretty rainy and chilly. The ideal weather really starts in July but carries through late October.

Tomorrow I’m off to Woods Hole for a short trip. This summer I’m proud to report that the Krasnow Institute, young as it is, has its third generation in residence. One of our neuroscience Ph.D. Students is taking the MBL’s Neural Systems and Behavior Course.
I’m going to be meeting tomorrow with MBL’s Chief Academic and Science Officer, Josh Hamilton, about our century-plus year old journal, The Biological Bulletin, which just reported it’s fourth straight year of increased impact factor.

More from the Cape


A wonderful dinner last night with a former student, now a valued member of my editorial board, and her husband.  This evening sitting out under a cool, cloudy sky in Falmouth working on a new paper about the trajectory of cortical development in post-natal humans (from zero till six years old).

I’m thinking about ideas for Nature’s Scifoo Camp at Google later this week. It’s a lot of fun.
Jim

MBL Corporation meeting

Today is the high point (at least as far as activity goes) for summer bioscience in Woods Hole–the first Friday in August when the annual Corporation meeting coincides with the hallowed traditions of the Friday Evening Lectures. This morning, the campus of the MBL is pristine, the ocean deep blue and the next three hours will bring together the elected scientists who make up the MBL Corporation–I’m proud to call myself one of them.

MBL is such a unique asset for biology–the tag-line “Biological Discovery in Woods Hole” pretty much telegraphs what has been going on here for 120 years. During the summer, with the internationally recognized educational program, the summer investigators who move their labs here to take advantage of both the marine diversity but also the scientific diversity of thought, and the distinctly non-hierarchical milieu–new biological discoveries, really paradigm breaking discoveries, have happened here regularly.
Perhaps there is a lesson here for the academy.
Jim