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In programming there are many hackathons - intense voluntary one day-week events, where participants collaboratively attack problems. They may be proposed by a company, NGO, participants or a group; for qualification/profit, for fun or for a good cause (eg. http://www.rhok.org/).

The question is - are there any similar events in science?

If not, what can be done or why it cannot work?

(As a comment: as I observe, while scientist are open-minded for a discussion, they are conservative, when it comes to action; at least much more than some of the programmers.)

EDIT (much later):

There are such events, even if extremely rare, e.g.:

So how can we continue to make science more disruptively accessible across all science disciplines, geographies, industries and skill-sets?

Enter Science Hack Day, a 48-hour-all-night event that brings together designers, developers, scientists and other enthusiastic geeks in the same physical space for a brief but intense period of collaboration, hacking, and building ‘cool stuff’. A hack is a unique modification, an interesting mashup or a quick solution to a problem – maybe not the most elegant solution, but often the cleverest. By having a fresh set of eyes from those who solve different types of problems across a variety of industries inside and outside of science, new concepts often emerge and can go on to influence science and adults’ relationship to science in unexpected ways.

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4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I have found, having participated in a few fairly intensive workshops that were intended to produce a product after a short amount of time that this tends toward failure for a few reasons:

  • Most academics are interested in problems as well as the implementation of solutions. Hackatons are implementation factories, but its only a small subset of academics who will enjoy and/or be supported just to solve other people's problems.
  • Building on that, its hard to formulate a meaningful problem, do the background research, plan the research and perform it in a one or two week period. A hackathon benefits from having all but the last stage done before-hand. Generally I've found with those types of intensive workshops, you can get the concept and maybe the plan down, but there needs to be more work done when everyone goes home. A lot more work. Which leads to the final issue...
  • Long distance collaboration, especially with people with whom you have a fairly weak bond, and especially one without strong, lasting grant support, is really, really hard to do.

So they do happen, but the finished-product focused ones tend to have a longer timeframe, and the shorter ones tend to be trying to accomplish very specific things, like putting out a consensus statement or planning research to be done later.

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+1 For problems vs implementation. However, my main emphasis is on bottom-up things, often not being a part of one's main projects. –  Piotr Migdal Apr 15 '12 at 22:23

In math we have various programs where a group of people get together to do focused work on a problem, usually at one of the mathematical institutes (I know of the SQuaREs program at AIM and the Research in Pairs program at Oberwolfach, and there are probably others). These are usually for 2-6 people, and the time frame is longer.

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In industrial math, Oxford has a long tradition of running study groups. This vague-sounding name has a rather specific meaning. From the page just linked:

What is a study group?

Study groups bring together mathematicians from across the globe to work on mathematical problems presented by industry in a week long workshop.

How does a study group work?

The academics work in problem solving teams with the presenters to tackle the problems raised, formulating their ideas using modelling, analysis and computation. At the end of the study group the academics present their findings and make suggestions of future work to be carried out. A final report is written after the study group.

I attended this one. They are a lot of fun and have a track record of real impact.

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I shall argue that iGEM falls under the category of a Hackathon. Having coached a team, I have grown the impression that the program essentially gathers a bunch of undergrads together, teaches them various problematic things about biology, and then for 10 weeks the students slash together a random assortment of solutions and call it a day.

Like EpiGrad, I have evolved to not favor this type of approach. Many times the students will take on a problem without recognizing that it is actually isn't a real problem. The result is a solution that tends to be very very narrowly constrained. Secondly, unlike a programming Hackathon, these sessions result in tons of hastily performed experiments with very few controls and lots of very difficult to reproduced data. Notably the Registry of Biological Parts is having a serious issue with the quality control of their "parts" since they all come from unsequenced plasmids that were shipped to the Registry to qualify for the deadline.

The positive is that it does get a lot of young students interested in science but it isn't a very productive way of doing science.

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Thanks for bringing the example of iGEM (actually, some of my friends have taken part in it; while I had in mind sth 1-7days, it is relevant). I am not arguing that this should be the main way people do science. However, IMHO in I science there is way little bottom-up things (esp. for students, resulting in lost of motivation, burnout, dropping out and even depression). And then 10weeks with no "real results" (but learning techniques, teamwork, ...) may be effectively less time-consuming than months of work with lack of energy. –  Piotr Migdal May 16 '12 at 20:49

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