AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXIII , No. 1, Spring 2001

 
SLAC Large Detector and its team
Photograph of the SLAC Large Detector, known locally as the 'ants on the detector' photograph. It illustrates the sizes of large detectors and collaborations in high-energy physics in the mid-1990s. Photo courtesy of Harvey Lynch.
Click on photo to see a larger version.

What Should Be Done to Preserve the History of Large Collaborations?
by Joan Warnow-Blewett

The AIP's ten-year study of multi-institutional scientific collaborations was designed to learn how to preserve the history of these crucially important but transient institutions. What materials best document their functions and activities? What steps should be taken to secure these materials for scientist-administrators, future historians, and others? (See previous issues of this Newsletter.) The project has now issued its recommendations. They are—quite literally—a call to action on the part of federal science agencies, academic archives, the National Archives and Records Administration, and other institutions. The project recommendations pertain most directly to the scientific fields studied: high-energy physics, space science, geophysics, ground-based astronomy (including observatory builders and observatory users), heavy-ion and nuclear physics, materials science and medical physics.

The AIP Center takes a hard-nosed position that only a very, very small fraction of the records created can possibly be saved. To preserve even these for posterity, action is necessary now.

After a decade of research and analysis we reached a point where we felt confident that we were in a position to make solid recommendations. Project staff:
• carried out fieldwork involving over 650 interviews with participants of selected collaborations and scores of site visits to archivists and records managers in academia, government-contract laboratories, federal agencies, and elsewhere;

• prepared historical and archival analyses of findings based on fieldwork and previous knowledge of AIP Center staff;

• experimented with three approaches to the appraisal of records created by collaborations: a typology, functional analysis, and standard appraisal guidelines; and

• produced an assessment of current archival practices.

When we compared the scope of the records needed to document collaborations against our assessment of current archival policies and practices, the urgency of our project recommendations became abundantly clear.

The project recommendations are now available. The first section looks at Policies and Procedures. The following synopsis focuses on recommendations addressed to academic institutions and to federal science agencies, because we found that it is these two sectors that bear the greatest burden of documenting multi-institutional scientific collaborations.

Academic Institutions. We recommend, first of all, that the papers of faculty who have regularly led or participated in important collaborative research be saved. In other cases, collaboration-related records kept by a faculty member should be accessioned (whether or not the balance of the individual's papers are), especially if the collaboration was deemed significant. A second recommendation asks academic archives to enlarge the scope of their collecting policies in order to accession non-federal records of NSF centers, science management offices, and consortium headquarters offices within their institutions. Finally, because these two recommendations stretch the means of most academic archives, we urge universities with strong science programs to request modest increases in their federal grant overhead rates to support their archives.

Federal Science Agencies. The two most important recommendations to this sector are: (1) federal agencies responsible for negotiating overhead rates to universities should support a marginal increase to provide the modest additional support academic archives need to document collaborative and other federally funded research and (2) federal science agencies should recognize the needs and benefits of providing adequate support for their own agency records management program. Throughout the AIP Study, project staff were taken aback by the meager resources made available to in-house records management programs. We ask federal science agencies to recognize that, with the exception of the Department of Energy, their own agency records management programs lack the resources to meet even the legally required standards of securing adequate documentation of their programs and activities.

Our complete Project Recommendations include ones addressed to specific federal science agencies. We give particular attention to the facilities of the National Science Foundation.Readers may be aware that the NSF supports major facilities (e.g., National Observatories) and centers (both its Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers and its Science and Technology Centers) but may not be aware that these institutions do not create federal records that would provide them with some protection by the National Archives. Accordingly, we recommend that NSF should fund fully the archival programs at its national facilities and provide fiscal and moral support for proper maintenance of records at its centers and at other major research institutions it funds.

National Archives and Records Administration. Multi-institutional collaborations are virtually all funded by federal science agencies and much of the research and development is carried out at agency facilities. Some of the most important of the AIP Study's recommendations are those addressed to NARA—which plays such a critical role in determining which records documenting federal functions and activities are saved. Among other things, we urge NARA to solicit increased input from subject matter experts so that it can make more informed decisions on records appraisal and, also, to work with agencies to monitor and promote agency records management practices to insure that legal regulatory responsibilities are met, including the identification and maintenance of records of permanent value.

Another major recommendation is directed to nonacademic research laboratories (government, Federally Funded Research and Development Centers, corporate, and free-standing institutions). We found that these laboratories—however important their contributions to postwar science may be—almost without exception lack programs to protect their valuable records. We ask them to initiate archival programs.

The next main section of the full report suggests What to Save. This covers policy and planning records as well as records of specific scientific disciplines. Among the disciplines covered by the AIP Study, we found policy-making bodies that have had a direct influence on collaborations in the fields of geophysics and space science; institutional records to be saved include those of the relevant Boards of the National Academy of Sciences, the International Council of Scientific Unions, and the World Meteorological Organization. We also list, under specific disciplines, core records (a small set to be preserved for each collaboration) and the more extensive files to be retained for the most significant collaborations.

A section on How to Save contains recommendations to identify past and future collaborations of major significance. Our first concern must be the identification of past collaborative research projects, since the documentation becomes endangered as soon as the project has ended and scientists turn their attention to other matters. We ask for the participation of all knowledgeable parties including individual scientists, academic departments or research laboratories, policy and planning bodies, and history committees of AIP Member Societies and suggest specific actions they might take. We ask scientists and research directors at laboratories and other research centers to set up a mechanism to secure records of future significant experiments. Put briefly, we ask that once a proposal for an experiment/project of likely significance is approved, the relevant administrator at the research site should require the collaboration to identify an individual collaboration member to be responsible for collaboration-wide records and which, if any, records on the team level should be retained on a long-term basis because of scientific or historical significance.

The Final Report of the AIP Study of Multi-Institutional Collaborations, consisting of Highlights and Project Recommendations and the more complete Documenting Multi-Institutional Collaborations (which also includes the Recommendations) will be available shortly from the AIP Center on request. The text of these and other project reports will also be found on our Web site at /history/pubslst.htm#collabs.


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AIP History CenterCenter for History of Physics
Email: chp@aip.org
Phone: 301-209-3165
American Institute of Physics 2003 American Institute of Physics, One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740-3843. Email: aipinfo@aip.org Phone: 301-209-3100; Fax: 301-209-0843