Monday, June 10, 2013

Scientific culture

On Sunday, once the NYT comes out of the blue bag, the first section I read is the business section.

I'm not looking for investing tips. I'm looking for culture tips.

The business section always has articles on things that in science we don't discuss--culture.

This past week it was David Segal's, aka The Haggler. He wasn't trying to extract an apology for someone's dishwasher not being fixed, but instead commenting on a business that was doing a good job.

The point of the piece was about fostering a culture that promotes good business practice. One of the executives was quoted as saying:

"If you don’t create a culture at your company, a culture will create itself...And it won’t be good. I sometimes hear people say ‘We don’t have a culture at our company.’ They have one. But if it hasn’t been nurtured, if no one has spent on any time on it, you can assume it’s the wrong culture."

Kendra and I talk about scientific culture a lot. We've seen so many bad cultural practices. And a fair number of good ones.

But you never read about scientific culture like you do business culture. What makes scientific teams work? What helps departments produce good students? It's just not discussed.

And bad scientific cultures develop in the absence of nurturing good ones.

So how does a good scientific culture work? Can it be represented with "-isms"?

K and I have a bunch of sayings that represent different parts of scientific culture for us.

They don't form a complete culture. These deserve more explanation, but I'll at least write the ones I can think of down.

1) Orals every day.
2) Question anything.
3) The hotter the fire, the stronger the steel.
4) Eyes on the horizon.
5) Leave space to grow.
6) Excellence without arrogance. Ignorance is the meter stick.
7) Common goals, flexible roles.
8) Weave progress.
9) Anabolic must balance catabolic.

Each one has a story.

Orals every day represents a rich environment with lots of questions. Like orals, but every day. We came up with this one in Minnesota.

Question anything means that anything should be fair to question. The most basic assumptions. A person's most cherished ideas. It also is phrased such that you don't question everything--that isn't productive.

There are still parts of the culture I'm not sure I have phrases for yet.

Like how to generate new ideas. They come from questioning basic assumptions (#2), discussing ideas to work through them (#3), and having a framework for larger goals (#4), for example. Yet, idea generation requires a creative, free-flowing environment. It's hard to crystallize that one.

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