SFI Postdocs gathered for the 2023 72 Hours of Science. [L–R] Mingzhen Lu, George Cantwell, Veronica Roberta Cappelli, Daniel Muratore, James Holehouse, Maell Cullen, Ignacio Arroyo, Andrés Ortiz-Muñoz (image: Katie Mast/SFI)

In the sprawling high-desert landscape between Santa Fe and Eldorado, nine of SFI’s postdocs gathered in late May at a quiet rental for 72 Hours of Science — an intense annual three-day retreat of community-building, creativity, and mad-dash research. 

“I’d heard good things about previous years’ 72 Hours of Science,” says James Holehouse, who began his postdoctoral fellowship at SFI last fall. He wanted to experience it, so he volunteered to co-organize the event. “At SFI, you’re already relatively free to explore unconventional ideas. In 72 Hours, you are even freer to throw ideas around. When you have a lot of ideas, some of them will be good.”  

Inspired by the format of 24-hour film festivals, 72 Hours of Science offers a space for blue-sky thinking under tight time constraints, with the goal of putting each postdoc’s talents to use. Participants arrive with a bevy of ideas, which they pitch and workshop and whittle to a small set of contenders before voting on a final topic. 

The group quickly eliminated questions where data would be too difficult to obtain — the main sticking point for many of the ideas — or topics that were too narrow to include everyone’s skill sets. Riffing on an idea popular at SFI and in the broader science community, they eventually chose the theme The Science of the Science of Science.

In a paper published in the journal Science in 2018, Santo Fortunato and co-authors wrote, “The science of science (SciSci) places the practice of science itself under the microscope.” It uses large datasets to analyze how science is done, considering everything from how scientists choose research questions to the paths their careers follow. In a meta approach, the science of SciSci would turn the microscope back on SciSci itself.

“It’s a new spin on an old field,” says Postdoctoral Fellow George Cantwell. “Some of the science of science analyses make prescriptive claims about how one should do science in order to have a good career. We wanted to ask: are those researchers following their own advice?” 

Cantwell says he’s not sure what “success” would mean for 72 Hours of Science. “There is a conservative mentality among scientists, and for good reason,” he says. Hasty data collection and analysis lead to untrustworthy results. “But it’s also a barrier.” While the compressed nature of 72 Hours of Science likely won’t result in solid research, three days is enough time to land on an ambitious project and see just how far the group can take it. “Success” might mean learning which formats work and which don’t, deepening relationships among the postdoc community, and discovering ways to ask better questions. 

“In the end, we put in a great deal of effort and we worked on something really, really cool,” says Holehouse. “It was quite nice bonding — it’s very different from seeing someone in a work environment. Just being able to see what other people’s skills are made it worthwhile.” 

Holehouse and Cantwell anticipate the group will continue working on their questions about the science of the science of science. “Now we have a good idea and a much clearer path on how to answer it,” Cantwell says. “Half the work in academia is coming up with the right questions and an idea of how to answer them.” 

Support from the James S. McDonnell Foundation 21st Century Science Initiative - Special Initiative Award in Understanding Dynamic and Multi-scale Systems. https://doi.org/10.37717/2021-3655

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