Category Archives: meeting planning

Think of science like an incurable intellectual disease (Part 2 of 3)

Or, why you’re funding the right thing—the wrong way.

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Ideas aren’t the only things having fun at ESIP

Part Two: The NSF and NIH spent a billion dollars funding science workshops last year*, and all I got was a lousy white-paper.

Link to Part ONE

A little recap. In Part One we discovered that the most engaged groups online were not communities as much as they were collectives. Their engagement was already built-in because these groups were formed by individuals who shared life-threatening, or life-style challenging medical diagnoses. I then made an analogy to science, suggesting that we treat science like a life-style challenging intellectual diagnosis. The idea is that scientists who go online to do science are likely to want to create collectives rather than join online communities. I also mentioned that we still need community.

There is a larger story about science becoming hyper-competitive, and about the fear of being scooped if you share your data, and the whole neoliberal warping of the norms of science. I’m not going to delve into nor dispute this story here. Instead I am going to point out that significant scientific funding and scientist participation in collectives can already be evidenced in the activity of hosting scientific workshops to address important, shared issues. Science workshops are a major current expression of the value and need for science collectives. Workshops are where scientists gather in place to collectively respond to challenges they face in their research.

Like many of you reading this, I have travelled to and participated in several workshops over the past decade. I’ve met a lot of really smart people. Shared gallons of really bad coffee. Had more than a few beers after long, long days of somewhat-facilitated work. And I have spent considerable time helping write reports and white-papers. Most of these papers I never saw again. A few got published. Some workshops are more successful. Some are a shambles. I am currently planning a workshop (charrette) for next summer.

As a mode of collective science, there are times when a workshop makes perfect sense, and maybe always will. What I will propose below, however, is that there is a way to make the great majority of workshops unnecessary, by funding and building science communities instead.

Just as digital journal articles have acquired their granularity and an arbitrary scarcity based on the history of printed journals, workshops have acquired their own granularity and scarcity. Here are some of their limits:

  • Workshops need to have enough “work” to do to fill 1-1/2 to 2 days of effort (to justify 2 days of travel). You can’t do a half-day or, say, a twenty-day workshop;
  • Workshops need to support say 16-34 participants, and these scientists must be available at the same time;
  • Workshops get funded to explore science research topics “important” enough to justify their $40k budget.  Other collective issues and needs are not currently very fundable.
  • Workshops need to have a topic that is still an issue months after the proposal submission.
  • Workshops require moving people around in airplanes.
  • Some fraction of workshop proposals don’t get funded at all.

Workshops are a product of Twentieth Century science. Science before the internet. Science before someone figured out how to let scientists create their own collectives online at no cost. That’s right NSF and NIH funders; there is a way you can support thousands of self-organized online workshops with a net marginal cost of zero. Well… zero, that is, after investing about 20% of the current outlay for workshops to support several dozen self-managed science communities.

We can explore a working model for this Twenty-First Century strategy. Real lessons already learned and ready to be copied across other research domains. A model that already supports better, more effective, and more nimble collectives than the current workshop model.

One example we can explore today is ESIP

The working model here is the Federation of Earth Science Information Partners (ESIP). ESIP runs two community meetings a year, with funding from NASA, NOAA, and USGS. These meetings are based on member-submitted sessions, and offer ample time for informal networking. The meetings are intentionally held in places surrounded by restaurants, coffee-shops, and taverns. These occasions of physical co-presence are highly valuable. They are where ESIP builds its culture.

The semi-annual meetings offer enough face-time for community members to build the personal connections and interpersonal trust that can sustain hundreds of productive online interactions. Some members go to every meeting, some once a year, some every couple years. While a great amount of work is exhibited and done at these meetings—several workshops (from 1/2 day to 2 day) are also held at these meetings—they are also social gatherings of the self-governed community. Spaces of conversation. Places where, as Matt Ridley says, “ideas go to have sex.” The real work of ESIP happens when members decide to run their own workshop-like online groups called “clusters.”

Clusters are a model for the future of online science collectives. They have the virtues of being free, instant, active, and nimble (See: Appendix). They can merge with one another or diverge from their original intent as desired. They have no requirements for a deliverable, except that they reward the services of the volunteer time they spend. And so they are motivated to get real work done. Being surrounded by the much larger community that spawns them, they can grow to whatever collective size they need. And when their work is finished they disappear, leaving their findings in a discoverable location on the community wiki, and/or published in science journals.

The key to ESIP clusters is that they are grounded by a community that supports a shared vision and shared norms. This fosters teamwork that can better avoid becoming dysfunctional.  Not all clusters will accomplish what they originally intended. Some will accomplish much more than that.  ESIP has two dozen clusters running at this time. (Note to NASA and NOAA: that’s like running 24 workshops, which would cost funders about a million dollars to do independently.)  ESIP could support a hundred clusters without adding additional infrastructure. Note: the use of clusters as a form of science collective is a practice that is still open to innovation.

A while back I wrote a list of the returns on investment for funding community growth in virtual science organizations. I need to add this return to the list: fund and grow community and it will generate any number of science collectives that can accelerate understanding and innovation within that science arena.

In a pre-internet world, funding several thousand physical workshops a year helped fill some of the need for science collectives. In the future, internet-enabled science could be based on scientist-led communities that each spawn hundreds of active online collectives as these are needed. Imagine a couple hundred ESIP-style communities, funded at a million dollars a year each, and every community supports a hundred clusters. For a couple hundred million dollars, agency funders can get an equivalent ROI of their current billion dollar funding. The question is this: will new modes of internet-enabled science collectives (clusters) drive a change in the funding model?

Six more lessons learned:

  1. Cluster-like groups can become an important mode of online collective work across the sciences, with huge savings in time, money, and effort.
  2. When funders support travel to community-run meetings that grow a culture of sharing and trust, they enable these communities to host their own online collectives. Funders will save hundreds of millions of dollars by NOT directly funding workshops.
  3. Each additional cluster can be started with a zero marginal cost (based on existing support for backbone community organizational tools and services).
  4. Funders and community staff coordinate among these clusters to amplify the impacts of their results.
  5. Funders encourage cross-community online clusters for trans-disciplinary science.
  6. Funders can target some travel and other support to improve diversity at the community level. Staff work to nudge diversity at the cluster level.

Coming Soon: Part Three: Platforms and Norms: There’s a commons in your science future

Preview: Science is broken: Who’s got the duct tape and WD40?

*I’m just estimating here. I found about 5000 active independent NSF funded workshops listed on the website, and popped in an average of $40k each. I then doubled this to account for workshops organized inside funded projects, synthesis centers and networks. The NIH budgets for workshops are not so easy to pin down, but I’m guessing they are slightly higher than the NSF, since the overall budget is significantly higher. It would be great if I could get real numbers for all these. Not even counting NASA, NOAA, DOE, etc..

Appendix: Comparing Clusters to Workshop RFPs

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10 Rules for a Santa Barbara Charrette (Part Two: the Final 5)

Part One is here

RULE 6: Use big paper Post-its to gather ideas.

The table conversations need to be captured first on big Post-its. Have the table choose a recorder. All comments are written down. This means that each person’s contribution is captured and made visual for the table. Do not simply write these on a computer. Sometimes the person who made the comment will want to revise this, or expand on it. Sometimes the recorder will not understand the comment, and will ask for clarification. Everyone’s voice is heard in this process. The conversation moves as fast as people can talk. When silence breaks out, the facilitator will come by to ask if the table needs another question.

RULE 7: Create narratives from the Post-its and put these online immediately.

Have a volunteer at each table (graduate students are good for this) who merges the contents of the big Post-its into a narrative. This narrative might be one paragraph, or several. I like to open up a Forum space on a Drupal site for each question, but you can capture these narratives in any way that works for you. Google documents, shared Dropbox: whatever you are most familiar with. The Post-its and these narratives are the output from the meeting. They are the gold you have woven from the ideas of your participants. It is tempting to skip the Post-it and go right to a computer. Do not allow this. The Post-it step is there to keep the conversation flowing and the let each person know their ideas are being captured.

RULE 8: Many conversations in one room.

Workshop planners often make the mistake of having a plenary room and then breakouts in separate rooms. Set up the main room in round tables; all the conversations will happen there. It will get loud, but people will also gain energy from the buzz in the room. And when they are voting with their feet, they only need to meander to another table and join the conversation.

RULE 9: No long introductions. No formal report-outs, but quick checks. No breaks, break anytime.

At the start, have each person stand and say their name. Then have them give three words that express their hopes for the day. This should take only 10 minutes.  During the course of the day, have a volunteer print out the narratives from the tables and post them on the wall near the coffee in real time. Let the display of these become an ongoing marker of the accomplishments of the workshop. Do not have any special report-out breaks, this only slows down the conversation. Do not schedule coffee or other breaks (except for lunch if you started in the morning), but encourage everyone to take a break any time they feel like it. They can get coffee, walk around the block, and do whatever they need to gather their attention back to the workshop. Once an hour, the facilitator will do a quick check-in with the room. Stop the conversations briefly to ask if there are any concerns about the process, and remind people to go look at the report-out wall.

RULE 10: Facilitator keeps the conversation going.

The Santa Barbara Charrette is a fast-moving symphony of conversations and inspirations. The key is to keep the ideas flowing, capture these as effectively as possible, and support each table with a supply of questions and a recording mechanism. The main facilitator will walk among the tables ready to supply a new question, or to gather the “hot topic” questions for other tables to answer. The facilitator will also decide when to rotate the tables, and can help keep the process on track.

At the end of the day, be prepared for the participants to be excited and exhausted. They will feel like their ideas have been heard, and their contributions have been saved. When they browse the report-out display, they will see how their table’s answer to the questions exposed different solutions from those of other tables. They may want to be alone after eight hours of constant conversation. They might be ready for some beer. At the end of the day, you will likely have a document that is hundreds of pages long, with multiple insights into the key questions that your organization faces. You will have mined the best ideas from 35 people. And these 35 people will leave the workshop satisfied that their time and their expertise has been well used and honored.

 Final Words

The Santa Barbara Charrette can be used for a wide range of planning and design problems. I’ve also done successful “mini-charrettes” with two or three tables. When you ask anyone who has participated, they will tell you how much fun they had getting their brains picked. They might also note that other workshops, where they are forced to watch PPTs in a room with 100 others, and then raise their hands one-by-one to speak, now seem boring and inefficient. This is the downside of the Santa Barbara Charrette: once you’ve gone there, you can never go back.

10 Rules for a Santa Barbara Charrette (Part One: the First 5)

Building maximum engagement into your workshop

Some years ago I organized a workshop to brainstorm how ocean scientists could find new research and communication capabilities through the use of social networking and social media. With funding from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, a team based at UC Santa Barbara was looking to create the next generation of internet-facilitated science. We called the project DigitalOcean. But first we needed to gather as many ideas as we could from thought leaders in a wide range of domains. We needed to have confidence that our plans were well scoped and in the forefront of emerging opportunities.

Participants came from across the US to help the DigitalOcean (DO) team envision this new suite of tools for ocean science. To support the discussion, I looked at a wide range of meeting types, and focused, finally, on an open meeting-style workshop, with a clear set of rules. For an entire day, thirty participants, split into groups of 6-7, discussed a range of issues and provided the DO team with a broad picture of how to move ahead.

I chose the term “charrette” to describe the event in part because of my experience in architecture charrettes at UC Los Angeles, and in part because of design outcomes we desired matched the intensely reflective process that a charrette produces.

In subsequent years, I’ve used the Santa Barbara Charrette model a number of times, and each time I’ve received the same feedback. It goes something like this: “I’ve just worked harder and I’ve also had more fun than I have ever experienced before at any workshop.” At the end, people actually complain of “brain fatigue,” a condition we help cure with beer.

If you are interested in doing your own Santa Barbara Charrette, you follow these 10 rules (The first 5 are here, the next will be in the next blog):

RULE 1: Pick a place that’s right in town and give them dinner/lunch

Before the charrette starts, make sure you feed to participants. Pick a downtown hotel near cafes and bars. Never do this at an airport hotel. If your charrette starts after lunch, feed them a good lunch first. If your charrette starts in the morning, feed them dinner the previous night. But do not try to gather them for breakfast before the charrette. People have a variety of breakfast desires. Have a table with coffee and snacks in the room.

 RULE 2: The ideas need to travel at the speed of conversation. No more than 35/36 people. Small groups all day.

The charrette planning should focus on getting a wide spread of expertise in the room, but no more than about 35 people (7 tables of five, or 5 tables of 7, or 6 tables of 6). The whole day will be used to promote critical conversations at these tables. As soon as the conversation lags at a table, give it something new to do (e.g., another question [see #4 below]).

RULE 3: Open with a blue sky session, get the creative juices going.

Start the conversations with a real “blue-sky” design problem. Let everyone add their fantasy to the solution of a problem. Give them paper and markers, scissors and glue. Give them props and tape. This is the only session where there is a brief report out. Let the groups compete for the most fantastic solution. Have them map their ideas on big Post-its and then stick these on the walls of the room. This beginning session is designed to help the group achieve an open conversational mode of interaction.

RULE 4: Give them real questions to answer, and let them add to these.

After the blue-sky exercise, each table is given a question to tackle (not necessarily the same question, although most tables might end up answering every question). In the weeks before the charrette, spend real time coming up with 10-12 key questions. Map out how the answers to these add up to a larger picture. Rank these questions as “central” or “if time allows”.  Create some colored sheets of paper that say “Hot Topic” on them. Give each table a few and encourage people to create their own question. Give these questions to OTHER TABLES. Never let someone answer their own question. Some questions will be better answered by tables with specific expertise, others by tables of mixed expertise (see below). This rule was provided by Susan Colitan, Vice President of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. The better the questions the more knowledge you will extract from the workshop!

RULE 5:  Break up groups 2-3 times over the course of the day and vote with your feet.

Give each member a name tag (first NAME on both sides). This tag should also tell them which table at which to sit (designated by color, number, animal, etc.). You might want to start by mixing up the expertise at each table. For example the COLOR designated tables might include a technical expert, a managerial expert, some content domain specialists, and others. After a couple hours, have everyone switch to the NUMBER table, which might be grouped by expertise. Later, they might switch to an ANIMAL table, etc. At the end of the day have a final question back at the original table. At any time anyone can move to a different table. This is called “voting with your feet.” Announce this at the beginning and also every time your swap out table designations.

The next 5 rules will be found here: Last 5 rules for a Santa Barbara Charrette.