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Science Retreats

Casa Morgado Esporão is the prime location in Portugal to organise science retreats. But what are they? What do they achieve? How can they be organised?

A recent paper provides some hints.

What are they?

Scientific retreats are an intrinsic part of the life of many institutes, departments, and groups. They depart from traditional, virtual, and unconventional conferences, workshops, and other types of scientific meetings in that participants generally all know each other prior to the retreat, and, often, they have a good grasp of the scientific interests and accomplishments of each other; they may even be working closely together. Participants, thus, do not attend the retreat expecting to necessarily hear about breakthroughs in their fields of interests or to present their latest results to an expert audience but rather to have a deeper knowledge of the work of their closest colleagues, learn from developments in related areas, and explore potential collaborations.

What do they achieve?

There is little empirical evidence that scientific retreats lead to better science (whatever this exactly means); we have been unable to find any work that would correlate frequency or length of scientific retreats with any of the metrics usually employed to measure the quality of science. Yet, anecdotal evidence of a positive correlation between scientific breakthroughs and scientists being outside the lab is abundant and includes a discovery of penicillin attributed to a long summer vacation by Fleming in 1928 or a discovery of Velcro by Georges de Mestral after a hunting trip with his dog in 1941. More recently, the invention of a new cipher for using DNA as high-capacity data storage apparently happened involving “many beers”.

How are they organised?

If properly planned, retreats offer an informal environment, which is becoming increasingly rare with the “laborization” of science, when scientists tend to follow pre-established working schedules and interact with each other only during the regular working hours, following well-structured formats of group meetings, conference calls, seminars, and other meetings. There is also an increasing divide between work at the lab and personal life. These tendencies are new to science, often being seen in the past as a way of life rather than a means of living. Retreats offer the possibility to break these tendencies by bringing together work and personal life. At the retreat, a student may have a lunch with a professor he never had a chance to interact with, postdocs from different groups may hike and party together, and principal investigators (PIs) with little time for informal discussions during a normal working week may have a chance to debate about their favorite topics and get to know each other. All these apparently irrelevant events may result in productive science. Smaller retreats—involving, for example, a single research group—can provide an opportunity for improving the day-to-day group dynamics and boosting creativity. Retreats can also facilitate building trust amongst people that is vital for productive working relationships. The authors believe that the intangible benefits delivered by scientific retreats are currently vastly underrated and understudied.

While retreats and other scientific events share common rules, in the following link 10 specific rules applied to retreats are provided.

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