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Calvinball Blog

Updated: Aug 5, 2021

Welcome to the Calvinball Blog, where I plan to share thoughts and memos on the state of research and the research community.

The name "Calvinball" derives from a recent conversation with Andrew Payne, in which he remarked with regard to my lab's fundraising strategy that I am apparently playing Calvinball with academia. "What's Calvinball?" I asked. As Andrew explained, Calvinball is a game that is constantly being reinvented by Calvin and his imaginary friend tiger, Hobbes, in "Calvin and Hobbes." Structure comes and goes as necessary to facilitate the end goal: fun, excitement, and chaos. No rules are ever broken; transgressions simply lead to the discovery of new and ever more delightful exceptions, edge cases, and ways of play.

Those of you who know me may know that I often regard rules and boundaries as an invitation to innovate. My lab at the Crick Institute buys in to the legal structure but not the culture of academia, and tends to view academic social mores as unnecessary if not justified. Why shouldn't academic institutions pay for consultants to help with grant applications or web design? Why shouldn't I be able to expand my lab by hiring commercial lab space? Why should my lab spin down when I want to move on to something different, with tremendous disruption to my students and trainees, rather than hiring a new PI to run it or promoting one of my postdocs? When I ask these questions, the answer is often simply, "no one has asked that before." We can make academia more functional and more efficient by asking these questions; and when we are told that it is against the rules, we are given an opportunity to delve in and understand why the rules are the way they are, and how we can change them for the better.

Academia has a tremendous amount to offer, including access to exceptionally talented and ambitious individuals, and a legal and financial structure that allows us to work on a diversity of potentially transformative, extremely early-stage technology development projects. At the same time, however, I have enough experience outside of academia to recognize the tenuous link between papers and impact, and the lack of a reward system for research that addresses real-world problems. The goal is not to tear the system down, but to reinvent it, and doing so is both delightful and just as impactful as the science itself.

This blog will be dedicated primarily to considering "new rules" of this sort, such as ways to structure labs to enable management without quashing creativity and serendipity; ways incentivize and enable labs to work on technologies that address concrete unmet needs; and ways to take some research out of the academic incentive structure altogether. If you are interested in these ideas, or if you would like to participate in their implementation, please get in touch.

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