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From the lab to the loo

May 27, 2011

“We succeeded because of where the bathrooms are.”

Morris Halle said this to me several years ago, as part of his story about how MIT became the epicenter of research in linguistics. Halle hired Noam Chomsky in 1955 and the world’s brightest young linguists started coming to Cambridge to study with them.

The linguists were housed in the makeshift Building 20. Because it was temporary, the administration didn’t care much if the employees got out their hammers and nails and tried to put things together just the way they wanted.

Part of this story appears in Steven Johnson’s wonderful book, Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation. Building 20, he proposes, is an example of a physical structure facilitating the fluid networks that are necessary for great ideas to develop.

Ideas grow through interaction; coffee machines are just as important for research as computers — microwaves help as much as magnifying glasses. There are few examples of scientific breakthroughs achieved by one scientist working alone. Science happens socially.

Leadership for researchers requires creating the right setting for work. The context in which research happens affects its quality. And there’s no question that the context affects productivity.

Researchers in a single institution working on a single grant or a single project need to be physically close to each other. (Virtual collaboration is a topic for later.)

In experimental fields, this may happen when scientists work together in a lab. But what about researchers who don’t work in labs? What about researchers in the humanities and social sciences, for instance? When your faculty or university gets a big new grant in one of these areas, how will you create the right setting for their work?

Researchers often tell me they feel isolated, especially those in non-experimental subjects. Maybe we should try to shake things up a bit to confront this isolation. We do get very attached to our individual offices — maybe that’s worth re-thinking. Perhaps we should get new offices when we get new projects, clustering the individuals who are starting to work together.

Think of how fun it would be to do research through techniques that have given great results in other industries. What if research groups worked through gamestorming?

We should play with the possibilities we have. And they might be very simple. Steven Johnson writes that the “ground zero of innovation was not the microscope. It was the conference table.”

Morris Halle and Noam Chomsky had a different ground zero. Their ideas grew on the walks they took a couple of times a day, down a corridor, past open office doors where colleagues and students were working on the same problems; their ideas grew on the way to the loo.

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