AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXVI, No. 2, Fall 1994

 

AIP STUDY OF MULTI-INSTITUTIONAL COLLABORATIONS: PROGRESS REPORT ON SPACE SCIENCE AND GEOPHYSICS


The staff of the AIP's long-term study of multi-institutional collaborations is drafting final reports for Phase II, a study of space science and geophysics. Like Phase I, our study of high-energy physics, Phase II examines selected collaborations in particular fields of physical research in order to build empirical knowledge on the origins, structures, and disbandment of collaborations and how these affect the creation and retention of historically valuable records. In this phase we have interviewed over 200 scientists, engineers, and administrators who participated in one of the 14 projects we singled out for examination, or who held positions giving them broad views of scientific collaborations in general.

The transcripts of the interviews have now all been indexed. Project Historian Joel Genuth has finished analyzing the transcripts, and the new Project Archivist, Anthony Capitos, is proceeding towards completion of his archival analysis. Meanwhile he has conducted site visits to important records centers with Project Director Joan Warnow-Blewett.

Space science and geophysics collaborations, we have found, broadly resemble each other in how they begin and end. In both fields, small groups within single institutions sustain research activities that do not require a multi-institutional framework. Therefore, large-project advocates must demonstrate the existence of widespread interest within the scientific community, often by securing the endorsement of a board of the US National Academy of Sciences or a program of the International Council of Scientific Unions, before a funding agency will sponsor the effort to create and manage a multi-institutional project. Both space science and geophysics projects usually end by depositing data sets in data banks where they are supposed to be (and often are) accessible and useful to scientists who were not directly involved in acquiring them. This wide availability of data helps to refresh prospects for single-institution research.

Space scientists deal with permanent institutions with standard practices--e.g., the NASA and European Space Agency space flight centers. Typically, the flight center charged with overseeing a project appoints one of its engineers to be project manager and one of its scientists to be project scientist. The project manager is powerful up to the launch of a spacecraft, with authority over the budget, schedule, and the technical resources out of which the heads of experiment- building teams, who usually hold the title principal investigator, must build their instruments. But the project manager is peripheral to defining the scientific goals for a project and quickly loses his importance once the spacecraft is up. The project scientist chairs meetings of the PIs and their staffs and co-investigators, but his position does not necessarily connote intellectual authority or leadership; in most US cases he is a PI who carries an extra administrative burden, perhaps overshadowed by other scientists, while project scientists for ESA missions are never PIs. Neither the project manager nor project scientist have usually been central figures in politicking for the existence of the missions they ended up administering.

Geophysicists, on the other hand, do not usually have permanent institutionalized management of multi-institutional projects. Organizational integrity in geophysics projects comes from creating free-standing corporations to manage a project from outside any single participating institution, or from having one institution dominate the collaboration's activities, or from establishing a Science Management Office to coordinate logistics from the home institution of one of the project's enthusiasts. In the first case, nominally advisory panels of scientists have power to determine the project's strategy and tactics, even though its members may not carry out the research they seek to make possible. In the second, the project becomes embedded in and takes on the culture of the dominating institution. The third type most closely resembles space science projects, in that a group of quasi-independent investigators seek to govern themselves while limiting the authority any one among them can exercise for collective inte ests.

Project staff is still developing ideas on policies and archival practices that could secure historically important records of space science and geophysics collaborations, but it is already clear that these collaborations present different archival problems and opportunities than we encountered in our study of high-energy physics. There we could usually identify a "key" leader whose breadth of interests and responsibilities generated records that made an especially valuable window into noteworthy collaborations. Such people are rare in space science and geophysics collaborations, and archival policies should not be predicated on their existence. However, the presumed long-term utility of data from space science and geophysics projects do stimulate scientists' interests in a limited preservation of project records. We hope to tap and broaden these interests to help meet the needs of future historians.


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AIP History Center Center for History of Physics
Email:chp@aip.org
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