Photograph of the first Solvay conference in 1911 at the Hotel Metropole

So you want to write a scientific paper in just 72 hours? In 2016, the postdoctoral fellows at the Santa Fe Institute set out with the goal of going from a novel research question to a publication in just 72 hours.

One of the group’s greatest challenges was figuring out how to capitalize on the expertise of all the participants. Because the 15 postdocs hailed from a variety of scientific backgrounds— physics, mathematics, anthropology, ecology, evolutionary biology, computer science, sociology, linguistics and several other fields— the group realized that finding the right question to utilize everyone’s talents could be especially difficult.

Out of the fire of diversity, a truly original paper was forged. 72h(S) produced a novel line of research into the dynamics of beneficial epidemics (epidemics that help, rather than harm, their hosts). Most importantly, the experiment fostered friendship and ongoing collaborations.

If you’d like to create your own fast-paced, interdisciplinary research experiment, follow this recipe developed by the postdocs at the Santa Fe Institute.

  1. Find your space: Ideally, rent a house with enough beds for everyone. Line up childcare for parents if requested, and organize catered meals to keep distractions to a minimum. Roundup supplies like a projector, easels, lots of notepads, and lots of coffee.
  2. Project Pre-Plan: Come to 72h(S) with a few research ideas in mind. Make sure that your idea can be broken down and tackled in sub-teams (and that YOU aren’t critical for every team!) Pose your idea as a question that your collaborators might riff on. Keep it manageable in the 72-hour time limit, but let yourself think big. Oh, and don’t let anyone else know what your idea is ahead of time and don’t start working on it yourself before the 72h(S).
  3. Pitch Ideas: Now it’s time to verbally present your idea to the group. Give everyone a stack of half-sheets of paper to write their project headline and a brief description of their idea on as they present to the group. Keep the descriptions short—just a few sentences focusing on the big ideas, open questions, and cool directions. Pitch as many ideas as you want, but make sure everyone in the group can pitch at least once. In the pitch phase, the group should ask questions and give construction feedback, but save the deep discussions for later in the process. Once you’ve pitched all your ideas, cluster all the half-sheets in groups, then try clustering them in different ways to spur new ideas or see how old ideas might be grouped into single projects.
  4. Pick Three: With all your ideas identified, now’s the time to ask any clarifying questions—just enough to know how to evaluate the ideas. Each participant then evaluates the pitches on a series of criteria: potential outcomes (can we do it in 72 hours with the skillset we’ve got?), coolness (how risky or groundbreaking is the idea?), and interest (do you actually want to do it?) Participants privately assign “digital stickers” for each category to pitches in any way they want. Ideally, three top projects emerge. If they don’t the group can discuss pros and cons and re-vote…or simply toss a coin.
  5. Develop the Ideas: Once you’ve narrowed down the pitches to the top three, now’s the time to explore the ideas more deeply. Ask each person what they could contribute to each of the three projects. Then, break into six teams—two for each project—with at least one person in each team who is an expert in that project’s field. Then, have each team flesh out the project just enough to get a sense of what it would really entail. Report back to the larger group to generate new ideas. Is there an obvious choice that emerges? Go for it! If not, vote based on two questions: Which project do you most want to do, and which could you still get excited about even though it’s not your first choice? Use this vote to pick a final project to work on.
  6. Make a Plan: Whew! The first stage is over. Now it’s time to get to work on the project you’ve selected. You’ve got a lot to get done in your remaining hours; it helps to make a plan. Then get to work.
  7. Breakout: To get all the work done, you’ll have to divide and conquer. Divvy up tasks into small, evenly sized groups that are based on functions and have intellectual diversity. IF needed, the groups can then divide into subgroups.
  8. Document: You probably usually keep records of the work you do. Now, you need to be even more diligent than usual. Keep a log of all unfollowed ideas. Keep track of all negative results.
  9. All-Hands Meetings: Every day, regroup before any commuters leave for the night. Do it again the next morning. Talk about how the experience is going and what you’re finding, and keep reminding yourselves why you’re taking on this crazy challenge.

10. Value Friendship Over Science. You’ll be spending a lot of intense time together over three and a half dynamic days. Keep an open mind, and keep it fun. Use the improvisational technique of “Yes, and…” to keep the conversation going. Remember, everyone’s in this together!

This document was drawn from conversations, ideas, and input from:

Andrew Berdahl, Christa Brelsford, Caterina De Bacco, Marion Dumas, Vanessa Ferdinand, Joshua A. Grochow, Laurent He ́bert-Dufresne, Yoav Kallus, Christopher P. Kempes, Artemy Kolchinsky, Daniel B. Larremore, Eric Libby, Eleanor A. Power, Caitlin A. Stern & Brendan D. Tracey

Read more about 72 Hours of Science.