Friday, August 9, 2013

Book review: Start-Up Nation (with relevance for science)

In a typical airport bookstore, the shelves are populated with books on the culture of business. Business culture is discussed explicitly and frequently.

In the sciences, there is little discussion of the culture of science. Books are devoted to analyzing the cultures developed by CEO’s, but we do not turn the same lens to scientists.

Why are some labs more productive than others? Why do some heralded scientists produce very few students that become heralded, while some less-heralded scientists seem to be more successful. Why do some institutions seem to succeed despite a lack of resources, while others drown in them.

In part, our disciplines are small. Everyone is an insider. We have few outsiders or gadflies that can take a dispassionate look at the topic. You may hear whispers about someone having “So many resources, so few insights”, but it rarely extends beyond that.

Scientific culture is important. As important in the end than statistics. But there are no books devoted to this.

So, I read business books occasionally.

The most recent one is Startup Nation by Dan Senor and Saul Singer. The authors seek to understand the business success of not a single company but a nation: Israel. Despite a scarcity of resources, an inability to trade with neighbors, and constant threat of war, for the past decade, Israel has produced a disproportionate fraction of the world’s startup companies and attracts an amazing fraction of the world’s startup capital. Almost all of the major tech companies have R&D labs here now.

Not too long ago, this wasn't even close to true.

The authors tried to understand why this is.

In the end, the authors elevate the importance of the Israeli culture as it applies to business.  That's where it gets interesting for intellectual arbitrage. Here are some of the cultural traits they emphasize...

1) Questioning. American business people that give presentations in Israel are caught off guard by how hard the questions are. Everyone asks questions and the questions are hard. Topics are constantly reviewed for every angle.

2) Flat hierarchies. There are fewer levels between the top and the bottom. Leaders even at the highest political offices are known more by their nicknames than titles. Merit and ability overrides age and position.

3) Fearlessness. There were different Hebrew words applied to different aspects of this, such as chutzpah, but the generalities hold. Everyone has a fearlessness to try something new. Failure is not a stigma if something can be learned from it.

4) Early leadership. Military service is compulsory. The number of 23-year olds that have led military missions or commanded groups is high.

5) Mashup. People from different sectors overlap frequently. Civilian and military worlds overlap frequently. Individuals can hold disparate skill sets.

6) Connections. The authors frequently mention that for one reason or another, “Everyone knows everyone.” Connections are frequent enough so that there is almost know such thing as a cold call.
Let’s stop with these six attributes. How frequently do the most successful people or labs or institutions hold these? What can we do as scientists to promote them? Do we hire people that are fearless and have less respect for tenure than merit? Do we ask students to test our ideas or work on our experiments as opposed to their own ideas and experiments? How much resource do we put into fostering connections among people?

In the end, the book was really a fascinating look into the history of the Israeli economy.

Even better, there might be some food for thought on starting science up again.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Pr Craine,

    Thank you for this very insightful post and parallel. It is indeed unfortunate that in research we lack the collective reflexivity that can be found in other organized human sectors... A now well-established field in the humanities is actually addressing some of the questions you raise. This field is known under several names, usually "science and technology studies", "social studies of science or "anthropology of science and technology". Sheila Jasanoff from Harvard is an example of a famous scholar in this field, and we have Bruno Latour and Michel Callon in France. Latour's "Science in Action" ( is still very relevant and insightful in my opinion.

    In ecology (but this might be true for other fields) we have yet to integrate these insights and tools (and discuss them, we might or might not agree with everything that is written!) and use them to develop a collective reflexion on ecological scientific culture. I hope this could change somehow!

    Best regards,
    Aleks Rankovic