As a top-ranked research institute, innovation is at the heart of what we do. Naturally, I think a lot about how to create an environment where ideas flow freely and scientists can do their best work. For most of us, novel and useful ideas don’t just spontaneously spring to life, fully fledged and ready to be tested in the real world, while reading scientific literature or thinking deep thoughts.
More often than not, after the first inklings of a novel idea are born, the initial thoughts are expanded, refined, and polished as they are examined in conversation with others. Above all, innovation for me is about providing physical and intellectual spaces where communication happens naturally and ideas can be examined in a collaborative and unthreatening environment.
Creating community starts with the physical environment. When we built the building we are currently in, I wanted an open-concept layout, where one lab’s space seamlessly flows into the next and people studying different aspects of the immune system work side by side. We have a lot of conference rooms and the atrium is rimmed with lounge chairs that prompt informal conversation.
It makes me very happy when I walk around the institute and see people from different labs deep in conversation, especially when they are in the atrium in those chairs I described. We also provide more formalized ways to discuss science and encourage communication within the organization. Every week, one of our young postdoctoral fellows presents their latest work as part of our internal “Research in Progress” series.
Twice a month, faculty members get together for their own internal science meeting. During each meeting, one faculty member presents something that maybe is a little bit out of the box, a new direction they are going into or a brand-new idea they are exploring. It’s a great opportunity to bounce ideas off of each other and hear a different perspective. Once a year, we all retreat to Lake Arrowhead for three days of intense scientific discussion, socializing, and fun.
Getting people to talk is not enough, though. Scientists need to be able to act on their ideas. One of my goals is to give faculty members as much room as possible to take risks. Part of it is creating a culture, where it is okay to break away from the herd, explore outside the beaten path and take the long view. But if anything, government funding in science and technology is afraid of investing in avant-garde projects that come with a high risk of failure.
Naturally, I wish we could do more but, unlike many independent research organizations, we provide our faculty with a significant amount of discretionary money. That allows people to step out of their comfort zone and embrace the unknown. That all creates, I hope, an atmosphere in which people feel rewarded and will want to be innovative.
Being in San Diego is a tremendous advantage. The Torrey Pines Mesa is home to a well-known research cluster, where biotech companies, the pharmaceutical industry, incubators, a number of world-renowned research institutes and UC San Diego, the largest organization in this research powerhouse, are all in close geographical proximity making it easy to collaborate across organizations and benefit from each other’s expertise.
And who wouldn’t want to live here? Compared to some other leading hub cities, San Diego has it all: entrepreneurial spirit, cosmopolitan culture, and an unbeatable climate.