“Startup weekends” in science

30 Jan

News about yet another “startup-weekend-like” event keep hitting me more and more often. They do not always are about creating a company or a product. Sometimes it’s about collaborative coding a game or writing a novel – all in very short time. In many cases it works amazingly well – being so tight on time forces people to be ultra-productive and to be focused only on important parts of the project. I envy people attending such meetings, not necessarily because of possible outcomes, but because of the energetic atmosphere that is present there.

Deepak wrote some time ago about “Bursty work” – idea, that work can be done by distributed teams focused around high value projects, instead of teams gathered around company/startup. That actually made me think if we can join these two ideas in science: to have ultra-productive and distributed team working on time-constrained project.

Lets assume that the average publication in the field of bioinformatics/computational biology takes six months of work of one scientist. It doesn’t really matter if it’s new server, database or protein family annotation. So a team of four people should do the same work in six weeks or faster (why faster? knowledge and skills are not distributed evenly, so someone else may code the necessary script faster than I would do it). If we would increase even further the number of people involved, create a distraction-free environment and prepare enough coffee for everyone, the whole process could be done in a week. Even if the assumptions here are not really correct, I’m pretty sure that quite a number of valuable papers could be done this way in a week.

So what do you think? What about creating a platform that allows for:

  • creating a project that has a clear and appealing outcome (for example publication, or at least manuscript in Nature Precedings)
  • creating a project workspace with all necessary tools (wiki, chat, svn, etc. plus small computational backend for testing)
  • creating a number of roles, that need to be filled by people with certain skills
  • joining the project if the skills match requirements
  • setting an clear deadline (for example, a countdown clock that will forbid to commit changes to the project after certain amount of time, leaving the workspace read-only)

I agree that science takes time, especially the quality science. But on the other hand, I have a feeling that we waste a lot of time learning things by ourselves, instead of learning form others, we waste this time because the outcome is not well defined, and finally we waste time solving everything ourselves instead of bouncing the idea against other people (this is what collaboration is all about). So what about creating an artificial environment that forbids wasting time?

Utopian? Maybe. Naive? Most likely. Worth considering? I hope so. Let me know.


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12 responses to ““Startup weekends” in science

  1. ludo

    January 31, 2008 at 11:47

    Very interesting post,
    I totaly agree with your point of view. I knwo some people that do it actually. jean-claude bradley try to grow this knid of idea, he call it the open notebook science. you can find information on his blog and here . They exactly do what you propose, a collaborative environement for scientist.
    But about the process time, you didn’t talk about the experiment duration. I mean biology or molecular modeling need time to produce results. I agree in the analyses of the result, and the preparation of the experiment it will be best to have collaboration, but what about the time. If we have to wait for some protien purification for instance, it will not be a time-constrained project, as we will have to wait for the result.

    finally, your idea is good as the idea is used by other people….but like for every project, this needs a energetic leader, or an energetic group of people….that are not too much egoist….

    let us know if you plan to organise something like that….

  2. Pawel Szczesny

    January 31, 2008 at 12:05

    Thanks Ludovic.

    I know the concept of “open science” and I’m at least familiar with work of Jean-Claude Bradley. Pedro Beltrao started recently open notebook project and said somewhere, that he was approached by two different scientists already to collaborate on his idea. So, idea of free collaboration is nothing new and as we see, it works. The point I made here was about making the same but in the spirit of “startup weekend” or “complete game in 40 hours”. Maybe we can organise a “publication weekends” where people could collaborate to write a complete paper in very short time?

    While experiments in the lab are almost exclusively out (too much time), I don’t think that we should also exclude molecular modelling/simulations. If money wouldn’t be an issue (I know, they always are), we could use Amazon’s computing cloud. But in general I agree – the whole idea is about working on projects that do not require extensive resources/experiments.

    Concerning people… You are definitely right. I also see several ways such system could be abused (imagine someone who got a grant for some project, and then (s)he makes it open, and let people work on it for free…), so this could be the real bottleneck.

  3. Jean-Claude Bradley

    January 31, 2008 at 20:33

    Thanks for the mention of UsefulChem. While it is true that we collaborate openly, the time crunch point that Pawel mentions is an element that we don’t often have. That is probably one of the most useful properties of proposals – they have hard deadlines and force people to finish things. I used that opportunity recently to put some ideas together that would have otherwise taken longer to crystallize. Even if it doesn’t get funded, I can now refer to those ideas on Nature Precedings.
    It really is a good idea – the challenge is to make the deadline hard enough.

  4. Cameron Neylon

    February 4, 2008 at 13:19

    There is also a resource and dependency issue. You need to have little packets of people’s time available at the right moment to make this kind of thing work. Unless you have highly defined and independent tasks it is difficult to get the big time benefits. It could work for a well defined very specific problem, the kind of things we do in undergraduate projects perhaps?

  5. Pawel Szczesny

    February 4, 2008 at 17:45

    Thank you, Jean-Claude, Cameron. I’m very honored to meet you both on my blog :).

    Lets see how it works – I’ll try to post some more on the topic, and if time permits, make an attempt with a small project. Cameron, you are right about size/specificity of the project – I’m not aiming here at the most important/most difficult stuff around, but at these small things taking 90% of time of in-silico scientists – exactly these which are often passed on to students (not all of us have this privilege). Definition of the problem is not often an issue – I believe in many cases the execution is a problem by itself.

  6. Jason Kelly

    February 6, 2008 at 15:28

    I really like the “bursty work” idea. I wouldn’t rule out experimental work though. As an example, the iGEM competition is approximately what you are describing. Teams of 4-10 people, ~6 months, and a fixed deadline (the competition date). It’s largely experimental work, and it’s amazing how much gets done in an iGEM project relative to a PhD student working alone for 6 months. Many of the projects end up being written up in scientific journals as well. Some of the teams also use OpenWetWare to host collaborative open lab notebooks, and I think the wiki does a pretty good job providing the shared space you were describing in your post. So maybe we’re not too far off from bursty work! The major problem, IMO, is that PhD programs aren’t set up to encourage and reward collaborative activity — it’s all about the individual, which frustrates these efforts I think.

  7. Pedro Beltrao

    February 7, 2008 at 22:52

    I am repeating a bit what I said in a comment to Deepak’s post but what I think is the biggest limitation right now is awareness. How to get the right people to join an open project even for a short period of time. It could work for those problems where there is already a sufficient number of people with the right expertise tuned in to respond to a call.

  8. jan.

    March 12, 2008 at 20:20

    This idea very much makes me think of what students of a 2-week perl course have to do at CSHL ( During the second week, little groups of them have to tackle a project and try to finish it in just those few days. It is incredible what they can achieve.
    It’d be nice if that could be done outside of a setting like that as well. However, I fear that one of the major obstacles will be that the collaborators are not actually sitting together, and even more importantly: disconnected from distractions. The reason those students get so far in their projects, is because they cannot do anything else but work on that (from early in the morning till… early in the next morning). The same goes for biohackathons, although we don’t make such long hours there.
    So my comment is: for real high productivity it’s best to lock the collaborators up in a room.

  9. Alexei

    April 21, 2008 at 06:28

    This is a really great idea! I know it works well when you can physically round up the collaborators all in the same room and there is a sense of urgency to keep everyone focussed. What would you need though to make it effective online? There are many more distractions available … maybe setting everything up in a virtual world and being really careful on how to invoke that sense or urgency? You should call them “thought-sprints” 🙂

  10. nsaunders

    April 21, 2008 at 08:09

    I guess the closest thing to this in bioinformatics at least is the “hackathon”. I don’t know if they run any more, but the OBF people use to have intensive meetings aimed at fixing up code for e.g. BioPerl, BioPython.

    I very much like the idea of a similar process aimed at addressing biological problems with defined outcomes.

  11. Pawel Szczesny

    May 3, 2008 at 20:10

    Alexei, Neil – I hope to organise something like this in a near future (after I convince somebody to host it). Hackathons are good example – maybe on their already established stature we could make this idea come true? We can call them hack-a-thought-sprints :).

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