A Blog Around The Clock

Pawel tried, for a year, to be a freelance scientist. While the experiment did not work, in a sense that it had to end, he has learned a lot from the experience. And all of us following his experience also learned a lot about the current state of the world. And I do not think this has anything to do with Pawel living in Poland – I doubt this would have been any different if he was in the USA or elsewhere.

You all know that I am a big fan of telecommuting and coworking and one of the doomsayers about the future existence of the institution of ‘The Office’. And you also know that I am a scientist, so it is no surprise that I have been also thinking how to connect these two – is there a way to have a coworking (or co-researching) facility for freelance scientists?

If you work 9-5 for The Man, it is understandable that you should strive mightily to sharply delineate work from the rest of your life, and to measure your worth in dollars (or place of employment, e.g., Harvard). But if you are lucky (and work to make it happen), you will do what you like to do, what you’d do for free anyway. Thus, you express your person through your work, you are what you do and your job is you, and it is perfectly fine to completely blur that distinction. If that is the case, your worth is not measured in dollars – you can say you “made it” if you can live wherever you want on the planet (or even off of it if you are adventurous), surrounded by people you like, doing what you like, and having lots of friends. You will be measured by the size of your network – who is your (mutual – it has to be mutual!) friend.

Sure, you can make many mutual friends online, through blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, FriendFeed, etc. But, as a human being, you also need physical proximity to some of the people you really like a lot. What are blogs but means to find each other in order to organize a Blogger Meetup or BloggerCon?

So, if you have that luck and freedom, you will choose where on Earth to live both by the criterion of climate and natural beauty and by unusual concentration of people you really like and want to be surrounded with.

But what about your work – how can you transport your work wherever you want to live? This depends, of course, on the nature of your work. If your job is to think, read, write, communicate, publish or do stuff with computers, you can do that everywhere as long as there is electricity and internet access. You can work at home, or a corner cafe, or a nice local coworking space.

But what if you are a scientist? How can you do that?

Remember World 2.0 at Rainbows End? In that plausible world, which will cease to be Science Fiction in mere years, some scientists obviously work at universities or at institutes that may or may not be associated with universities. They are presumably hired to teach and train the new generations of scientists there. But most of scientific research is apparently happening elsewhere – in the virtual world, on the “boards”.

When I read about those “boards”, I was reminded of sites like Innocentive, Innovation Exchange, Nine Sigma or even 2collab – places where funders and researchers find each other and exchange money for discoveries – a free-market type of funding. As an alternative, it sound pretty good, though big basic science would probably still have to be funded by the government agencies.

But, Vinge never tells where those scientists live and where they actually do their research. They may pick up jobs online, but they still have to do wet work in some lab somewhere. Where? Some may be at universities, supplementing their income in this way. But many are likely freelancers (many of those perhaps without any formal degrees in science, just talented people who learned by themselves and through their thoughts, words and actual discoveries, built their reputations in the scientific community). Where do those freelancers do their research?

Perhaps in a scientific equivalent of a coworking place – perhaps something like a Science Hostel. I have been thinking about this for quite a while, but I did not know that Garret Lisi also came up with this concept. Apart from being on the cutting edge of science publishing, he is also apparently thinking innovatively about the way science in the future will be done. In his interview on Backreaction, Garett says:

I’ve been thinking about what the ideal scientific work environment would be, and the best thing I’ve been able to come up with is a Science Hostel. I envision a large house where theorists could live and work on their stuff alone or in groups while having their meals and living space provided. The idea is to give researchers time, with an easily accessible but undemanding social atmosphere, and as little responsibility as possible. And, of course, it would have to be somewhere beautiful — with good hiking and other things to do outside. For the past year I’ve been living near Lake Tahoe — a great environment for thinking and playing. Anywhere in the mountains would probably be good for a Science Hostel — even better if it’s next to a good ski hill. :)

Now that is all very nice if you are a theorist – all you need is an armchair. Or if your only scientific tool is a computer, you can do it there. But what if you need more?

A coworking space has three important components: the physical space, the technological infrastructure, and the people. A Science Hostel that accommodates people who need more than armchairs and wifi, would need to be topical – rooms designed as labs of a particular kind, common equipment that will be used by most people there, all the people being in roughly the same field who use roughly the same tools.

But this is not such a new idea. Remember Entwicklungsmechanik from the late 19th and early 20th century? The winters in Germany are cold, so the developmental biologists spent a lot of their time at Stazione Zoologica in Naples, where they made their discoveries by studying eggs and embryos of sea urchins. That was a Science Hostel. How about Woods Hole? Cold Spring Harbor? Perimeter Institute? Those are all Science Hostels.

But in the modern world, there can be more of those. There will be vast differences in size, type and economics. Some will be built and funded by large, rich institutions. Others will be cooperative projects. Some will be free, but by invitation only. Others will be open, but charging for space and use of the facilities. While most of the past and existing institutes of this sort only cater to people who are already associated with other academic institutions, some of the new hostels will cater to freelancers as well (needless to say, Open Access to literature is essential to development of such spaces).

And people will choose to live where the appropriate Science Hostel is located because this is where they can do their work and live their lives surrounded by like-minded people. There will be a lot of physicists living in the village that has a Physics Hostel. A lot of molecular biologists surrounding a Hostel equipped for them. Perhaps there will be a Hostel specifically geared towards research on whole animals with its own IACUC, facilities and staff.

We’ll wait and see….

Comments

  1. #1 Pawel
    December 15, 2008

    I think my particular setup wasn’t suited very well for such experiment – under little different conditions it would last much longer. Although the end would be probably the same. Internet is a poor substitute for having a coffee (or a beer) with a group of like-minded people.

    What I finally understood after reading your post was that I shouldn’t run away from a concept of having a physical coworking space. Virtual institute may be a very good approach to get things done, but not necessarily to do great things.

  2. #2 Coturnix
    December 15, 2008

    There is a discussion of this on FriendFeed, which I’d like to move here to some extent. In response to Pawel, I wrote there:

    “For all but the most extreme loners, a physical space with people is important for any work. The point is having freedom in that space – a non-hierarchical place where you can bring your own ideas and your own work, not being told from up above what to do (and clock in and out every day). Which is why it is better to work at a coworking place than in your company’s HQ where the CEO also has an office.”

  3. #3 Arikia
    December 15, 2008

    I wish I could be a freelance anything to accommodate my night owl tendencies. Great post.

  4. #4 MissPrism
    December 16, 2008

    I’d love to stay at that hostel (for a few days per year – living on campus for my PhD drove me half insane), but there are plenty of good scientists who don’t want 24-hour total immersion. We already tend to confuse obsession with greatness, so I think the idea that the one ideal for everyone is in an all-science-all-the-time bubble is a pernicious one.

    And again, the mountains and the hiking – sounds lovely to me, but there are scientists who are not outdoorsy and for whom a night out clubbing is the perfect recreation after a day’s thinking. These suggestions tend to assume scientists are all the same kind of person, and that makes me sonewhat uneasy.

  5. #5 Coturnix
    December 16, 2008

    Garrett likes the mountains – I hope my Hostel is somewhere around here in the Triangle: a hub of bloggers, scientists from several universities and big institutes, great food, friends and family, interesting cultural events, good music scene…

  6. #6 Plukovnik
    December 16, 2008

    I know about at least one such a “Science Hostel”. Check Dagstuhl castle in Germany: http://www.dagstuhl.de/en/about-dagstuhl/concept/

  7. #7 Mac Cowell
    January 11, 2010

    I met with the owners of an amazing mansion on the shores of Traverse Bay in Northern Michigan over the holidays. They are planning on selling their property and looking for something interesting to do with it. I suggested something like a Science Hostel and they were interested. They said they would be willing to donate the property to a non-profit and contribute $1 Million to a trust to operate the facility. We would have to raise roughly $19 million more to make the place sustainable indefinitely.

    This could be Cold Springs Harbor 2.0.

    Anyone want to help? I believe we have time and permission to organize a test-run of the facility for a month this summer. If we pulled that off, perhaps we could snowball the success into a major fundraising effort.

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