Dinner parties and sandpits: Intensive retreats to catalyze science collaborations

We’re now mid-way through the first year of the AAAS Community Engagement Fellows Program (CEFP), funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The first cohort of Fellows is made up of 17 scientific community managers working with … Continue reading “Dinner parties and sandpits: Intensive retreats to catalyze science collaborations”

We’re now mid-way through the first year of the AAAS Community Engagement Fellows Program (CEFP), funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The first cohort of Fellows is made up of 17 scientific community managers working with a diverse range of scientific communities. As they continue to develop their community engagement skills and apply some of the ideas and strategies from their training, the Fellows will report back on the Trellis blog, sharing their challenges, discoveries, and insights. Today, in the last of a three part series of reflections on the Science of Team Science 2017 conference, Fellow Jennifer Davison explores several intensive retreat models for scientific collaboration.

Posted by Jennifer Davison, Program Manager at Urban@UW

Food in bowls
Carefully selected ingredients make the best dinner-
and team building retreat. Credit: “Housewarming Party” by Mikko Kuhna, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The art and practice of providing specific conditions designed to spark novel projects is not new. Business incubators, science parks, and innovation districts are each designed to bring a diverse array of bright people into the same space and to facilitate their interaction, in order to trigger and support new collaborations. At Science of Team Science, many conversations explored how to cultivate research collaborations in a specific, similar way: through themed, time-constrained, highly curated, retreat-like events. I love these events when I’ve joined them, even though they may feel a bit scripted, because the potential of the partnerships and ideas is felt so strongly. And as program manager for Urban@UW, one of my roles is to encourage such collaborations, through as efficient means as possible. So I was interested in both the best practices for setting up such events, and the evidence for their effectiveness.

The Sandpit

In the science realm, one of the most well-known versions of this approach is called the sandpit, developed by the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council under their IDEAS Factory initiative. This model has been adopted by the NSF and NASA through “idea labs”, and many other organizations in the US and around the world use similar approaches for catalyzing new projects, especially around topics that are “stuck in silos”, as Kara Hall with the National Cancer Institute explained.

Key benefits of such intensive events to seed and support collaborations are the time and space to be creative. Specifically, these workshops allow:

– Distractionfree time to concentrate on bigger or new ideas

– Willing and able participants ready to explore innovative, creative ideas beyond their comfort zone

– Trust to be built quickly, which is key for effective collaboration across difference.

– Highrisk highreward ideas, greater ROI. Kara suggested that, as an example, the curated “speed-dating” that is often included to help researchers connect around common interests can lead to more success in getting large grants—her project saw an ROI of upwards of $800


The Dinner Party

Dr. Anne Herberger Marino with the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative suggested a dinner-party-inspired list of best practices for such idea labs:

– Start with thebestingredients. Participants should be leaders and role models in the field: not just content experts but also team-players willing to take risks in their ideas and their efforts, and able to communicate across differences. A combination of invitation and application processes could be used to achieve the optimal mix.

– Shop whats in season. Make sure that the theme/topics are timely and relevant. Incorporate substantive interaction with subject matter experts, real-world practitioners, and others who can provide mentorship on both the topics and the iterative process of designing a collaborative project.

– Practicemise en place. Prepare everything in advance, including the optimal place and time to allow for high-quality participation. Include a variety of materials and structured activities to support the ideation process. As well, set expectations with lots of information ahead of time; additionally, get participants to step outside their perspective before they arrive. Dayan Ranwala with the Medical University of South Carolina suggested that participants include in their applications their ideas for retreat objectives; there was also frequent mention of providing pre-rereat homework.

– Taste as you go. check in during the workshop, and adapt if needed to allow for maximally generative thinking. Kara’s event allowed for people to share ideas spontaneously through the opportunity for 1-minute “soap boxes”.

– Mix the familiar and the novel, keeping participants on their toes. Anne’s idea labs included both traditional poster sessions as well as playdough opportunities.

– Its about connecting people. Some scientists are okay with icebreaker activities and others are not. The key is to find a balance between structure, which provides safety, and disrupted expectations and routines, which allows for new ideas to emerge and for authentic relationships to develop.


Other Tips

Suzanne Christen with Institute for Advanced Study spoke about their efforts to develop Convergence Science teams incorporating clinical oncologists and physical scientists. She shared an overarching agenda that worked well for her workshops:

1. explore the big ideas and challenges under the proposed them

2. participant “lightning talks” to share their work and ideas for projects

3. structured time to self-organize and develop project ideas

4. develop team proposals

5. present and prioritize projects and define next steps

This would depend, of course, on the length of the workshop and the number of people included, but it seemed that allowing enough time for participants to explore intersections among each others’ work and interests is particularly important.

Other common lessons learned included the following:

– Establish and maintain a distractionfreecontainer”—a place and time away from daily tasks and email. An off-campus or uncommon meeting location can help get people out of their mental routines. With longer events, a balance of protected work time and down-time may help keep people focused while not burning out.

– Tie projects to money. Seed funding goes hand-in-hand with such approaches, and RFPs can provide tangible next steps for project teams and can help address some of the common barriers to collaboration.

– A strong facilitator is highly recommended to help the group as ideas are hatched, mismatches in assumptions and expectations are uncovered, and tensions across difference are navigated as part of the trust-building process.

What other tools or approaches do you work with?


This is the last in a three part series, so you may want to read the first and second installment as well. You can also catch up on all of our 2017 Science of Team Science coverage or browse all of the CEFP Fellows’ posts.