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Assessment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute 5 Use of Information Technology This chapter evaluates the success of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) in exploring new approaches, using modern information technology, to conduct interdisciplinary and collaborative research among widely distributed investigators. NAI CONTRIBUTIONS Applications of information technology within the NAI have been focused in two major areas: improving communications among widely distributed research teams to enhance interdisciplinary research and cross-disciplinary training of graduate student researchers and improving communications with the public to enhance education and public outreach. The NAI has achieved significant progress in both these areas. Electronic communications such as e-mail and information posted on Web sites have been essential for the successful operation of NAI nodes and for effective communication between the nodes and NAI Central. In particular, the Web site developed and maintained by NAI Central and the associated Web-based tools for communicating with NAI Central are viewed as important developments.1 The NAI newsletter published regularly on the NAI Web site and the archive of webcast/podcast seminars are praised as being especially effective for keeping NAI members informed about current scientific and other developments.2 The NAI has made significant efforts to take advantage of new communications technologies such as videoconferencing and WebEx tools for sharing presentations in real time. In the case of WebEx, the NAI played something of a pioneering role in the application of this technology. The principal investigators (PIs) of various past and present NAI nodes and foreign affiliates/associates who provided input to the committee reported, however, that the effectiveness of these new technologies was poor (see Box 5.1). But it is difficult to assess these comments because only 9 responses were received from some 30 individuals contacted. What is clear from both written and verbal input to the committee is that some of the nodes embraced the new technologies and learned how to use them effectively, but other nodes were slow to take full advantage of them. The Director’s Seminar Series, which is active during the academic year, is a monthly webcast aimed at a broad scientific audience.3 Seminars cover a wide range of astrobiology research topics, provide basic introductions to the subdisciplines of astrobiology, give updates of NAI-sponsored research, and offer opportunities for interactive participation of NAI members through moderated question-answer and discussion periods. This seminar series appears to have been an effective tool for connecting NAI nodes to the broad range of NAI-sponsored research,
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Assessment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute BOX 5.1 SELECTED COMMENTS ON NAI INFORMATION TECNOLOGIES Baruch Blumberg (Fox Chase Cancer Center and founding director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute): Each team received videoconferencing equipment. To assist with the conferencing sessions “producer directors” were appointed at each of the sites, and they met periodically by video and in person to facilitate the videoconferencing. Our video communication capabilities improved over the time I was Director and I understand are even better now. The NAI Web site was established as a mechanism for frequent communication of papers, newsletters, notices, educational material, administrative matters and also for nonhierarchal peer-to-peer communications. It was also a major part of the public outreach effort. We realized that electronic means alone were insufficient to establish good collaboration, and we instituted other methods for abetting interaction and collaboration. The Executive Council met monthly by video and in person three or more times a year. The entire membership was invited to multiday meetings at one of the team sites every other year, and on alternate years they would meet at the Astrobiology Science Conference. We also encouraged participation in field trips. Funding was available for members of one team to join field trips organized by another in order to increase interaction. Additional funding was made available for joint research projects that would bring people from different teams together. There was a remarkable amount of personal connections established between members of the different teams and, I believe, it did lead to the coherence of the organization and increased collaboration. David Des Marais (principal investigator, NASA Ames Research Center): The initial efforts to develop novel approaches in information technology were neither very successful nor were they truly novel. However, in recent years the NAI has very successfully employed mainstream applications such as WebEx. Also, the NAI-supported Web-based seminar series have typically been excellent. I cannot cite hard evidence, but I suspect that these seminars have fostered several interdisciplinary collaborations. Bruce Jakosky (principal investigator, University of Colorado): Not very, to be honest, but then nobody has figured out how to do this. The NAI pioneered the (somewhat) effective use of videoconferencing, video seminars, and WebEx, but I would hope that modern approaches to collaborative work would go farther than this. Of course, if I had any good ideas as to how to enhance these, I would put them forward. Andrew Knoll (former principal investigator, Harvard University): The NAI certainly made it possible for me to conduct collaborative research at Rio Tinto with Spanish colleagues, and for this I am most appreciative. NAI-driven technological innovation played little role in this collaboration. E-mail, the Internet, wiki-sites, etc. go a long way toward facilitating collaborative research. I don’t know to what extent NAI has developed resources above and beyond these readily available facilitators. Rocco Mancinelli (principal investigator, SETI Institute): With the use of WebEx and videoconferencing capabilities the NAI has successfully conducted meetings (e.g., the NAI Executive Council monthly meetings, informational workshops) and presented colloquia. These have provided us the opportunity to interact more regularly than we otherwise could. Hiroshi Ohmoto (principal investigator, Pennsylvania State University): During the early stage of the NAI, we talked about creating a common Astrobiology Laboratory in Moffett Field (Ames), which would house (1) biological experimental facilities and (2) large state-of-the-art analytical instruments. Experiments and analyses were to be carried out remotely using modern technology, such as the technology used in Mars exploration, and the data were to be shared by all NAI-related investigators via advanced IT network. It would have been great if such a laboratory had been built. But unfortunately, such a grand vision was lost when Dr. Blumberg left the NAI.
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Assessment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute Mitchell Sogin (principal investigator, Marine Biological Laboratory): I think the NAI needs to require the PIs to spend more time interacting at meetings, and that would extend into videoconference activities that are more productive. Currently and historically the multiteam videoconferences have been technologically superb but all too often lack substance. Sean Solomon (principal investigator, Carnegie Institution of Washington): The NAI has been a leader in the exploration of new approaches to cross-team communication. Not all approaches have proven successful, but negative outcomes are to be expected in the pursuit of novel methods for conducting collaborative research among geographically dispersed participants. It is difficult to improve on face-to-face meetings among potential collaborators with shared interests and complementary expertise as a basis for the most successful collaborations. Roger Summons (principal investigator, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): NAI has certainly explored this successfully and in numerous ways. However, I think the outcomes are modest. Science works best when people engage one-on-one. Personally, I don’t see an easy way around this and think that the scientific meetings and field exercises have been the linchpin in bringing widely distributed investigators together. Malcolm Walter (director, Australian Center for Astrobiology): From my point of view it has failed. My group’s interaction with its collaborators in the NAI has not been enhanced by the NAI’s use of “modern information technology.” Neville Woolf (principal investigator, University of Arizona): This does not work very well. We do indeed use it as a substitute for face-to-face meetings because any meeting is better than no meeting. But face-to-face is still needed. It is likely that some of the difficulties result from the loss of nonverbal signals. Other difficulties arise from the rigid time constraints of Web meetings. Some of the difficulties are inherent in time zone differences around the globe. thereby promoting interdisciplinary interactions, although there appears to be little consistency of participation across all of the NAI nodes. The staff at NAI Central identified a variety of factors that have posed challenges to effective electronic interactions between disciplines and between NAI nodes. Social factors included the difficulty of finding times for video conferences that fit into the busy schedules of NAI members; lack of enthusiasm on the part of some NAI members for virtual collaborations; and differences in member abilities to master new technologies. Technical factors included platform incompatibilities, differences in Internet connection speeds, lack of local information technology expertise and support at some nodes, and coping with security policies at some sites. NAI Central’s response to these challenges has been well balanced in terms of the responsiveness to solving hardware and software problems and in keeping up with the latest advances in technology to improve interactions between NAI members. The social factors have been far less tractable, although on-site training in the use of communication tools by the staff of NAI Central proved to be fairly successful in overcoming some of these issues during the formative years of the NAI. Software developments by the NAI to manage virtual collaborations through secure, shared Web interfaces among researchers at different nodes (e.g., sharing of data and products in real time) have been part of an experimental effort that may have promise for improving interdisciplinary interactions.
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Assessment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute The staff of NAI Central has given much thought to potential future activities and undertakings that will enhance the NAI’s role as a virtual institute. Examples of recent developments include the following: Reconstituting the NAI’s Information Technology Working Group. This group, with members drawn from the NAI teams, is responsible for addressing collaborative technology issues and implementing continual improvements. Although the group ceased operation following the recent NAI budget cuts, it was reestablished in 2007 and is now meeting regularly. Developing stronger ties with information/collaborative technology developers in the Silicon Valley area. The NAI team at the Ames Research Center, for example, is already undertaking a Google-funded project relating to the tracking of sea-level rise and climate change. NAI Central submitted a proposal to Google to explore virtual environments for science collaboration, but it was not selected for funding. Upgrading of NAI’s video- and teleconferencing technologies. As a parallel and lower-cost option to upgrading its collaborative tools, NAI Central recently purchased a Codian Multipoint Control Unit. This device employs a user-driven interface to establish up to 30 simultaneous videoconferencing connections. It will allow NAI teams and team members to independently schedule videoconferences without the involvement of NAI Central. In addition, the Ames Research Center—with NAI encouragement—is considering the acquisition of a Cisco TelePresence system, which provides a highly elaborate and comprehensive videoconferencing and collaborative work environment. Exploring social networking, user-driven content, and virtual world systems to enhance interactions between astrobiologists. NAI has currently made only tentative forays in these directions. NAI-sponsored astrobiology students have established a presence in Facebook, and there is a nascent astrobiology presence on Nature Network. NAI Central is looking at the potential of wiki software to enhance online collaborations. In addition, the NAI is considering establishing an “Astrobiology Island” in Second Life, a three-dimensional virtual world where users can meet and interact. The NAI’s long-term hope is that a combination of these new information technology concepts and existing videoconferencing tools can be harnessed to create a new generation of virtual meetings and workshops. To this end, it is notable that the NAI was the host of a NASA Science Mission Directorate Web workshop held in November 2007 and organized a session on the use of social networking to promote scientific collaborations. RELATIONSHIP TO OTHER ASTROBIOLOGY PROGRAMS The use of modern information technology to enhance interdisciplinary and collaborative research among widely distributed investigators is a characteristic of the NAI that sets it apart from the other components of NASA’s Astrobiology program. BALANCE OF NAI ACTIVITIES The Web site developed and maintained by NAI Central has been an effective tool for communicating with the public, serving a very large volume of individuals and downloads in the United States and around the world. The committee notes and welcomes the fact that the NAI is developing an integrated Web presence for the Astrobiology program as a whole, drawing on the capabilities and tools developed to support the NAI Web site. RECOMMENDATIONS FOR FUTURE NAI ACTIVITIES With respect to the goal of exploring new approaches and using modern information technology to conduct interdisciplinary and collaborative research among widely distributed investigators, the committee finds that: The substantial efforts by NAI Central to improve communications among NAI members have achieved some significant successes.
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Assessment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute The NAI has been less successful in promoting the use of collaborative work tools by the researchers affiliated with its participating teams. NAI’s results are uneven because there is inherent resistance to adopting new technologies. Recommendation: The NAI should vigorously pursue new approaches using modern information technologies to increase the effectiveness of the NAI nodes. In particular, additional efforts by NAI Central are needed to ensure that new communications tools are used to enhance the effectiveness of interdisciplinary and collaborative research and training. The committee suggests the following actions to implement this recommendation: The NAI should initiate an in-depth study of the use of technology for communication, collaboration, and training with the goal of understanding why so many NAI participants believe that success to date has been mixed. The NAI might consider methods to increase its emphasis on enabling the exchange of interdisciplinary ideas and research. This enhanced effort would continue to be coordinated and perhaps funded by NAI Central, supported by information-technology specialists on staff at NAI Central as needed. Particular attention might be paid to the social challenges of incorporating new information technology tools into the NAI’s daily activities. To help teams of scientists with the task of figuring out collaborative technology, the NAI should take advantage of the multidecade-long research literature developed by social scientists and other experts on collaborative activities concerning the success and failure modes for virtual teams. The NAI might consider continuing the Director’s Seminar Series, which has been an effective tool for enhancing interactions among NAI members, on a regular basis and encouraging broad participation by all members of the astrobiology community. The NAI might consider accelerating the use of the expertise and the Web tools developed at NAI Central to support other segments of NASA’s Astrobiology program. The NAI could set up an external review team, composed of national leaders in collaborative technologies from university and industry, to examine the NAI teams’ use of collaboration technology tools. This approach not only would give NAI objective advice about how to improve its support of virtual teams but also might help to identify opportunities for future joint work. NAI Central is encouraged to continue its current efforts to develop strategic alliances with Silicon Valley companies in the collaboration/information technology sector. NAI Central could also consider partnering with one of the university-based research groups working to develop collaborative technologies that are much more advanced than commercially available systems. Moreover, what computer scientists interested in collaboration research need most is a tightly knit scientific community with which to experiment. NAI Central could persuade one or more NAI teams to act as testbeds for other groups whose primary research mission is scientific collaboration, thereby gaining a research and development capability financed with non-NAI funds. Funding agencies such as NSF and DOE are increasingly interested in funding projects relating to “e-science” and “cyberinfrastructure.” NAI Central could issue requests for proposals that would allow certain NAI teams to partner with collaboration researchers seeking NSF or DOE funds and thereby prototype leading-edge systems for the NAI as a whole. The NAI could turn its scientists who are reluctant to engage in the use of collaboration technology into an asset by asking these reluctant adopters to suggest specific improvements that would attract them to use the improved technology and then use that information to develop a research agenda for NAI collaboration research partners. The NAI is encouraged to continue its current efforts to explore the possibility of harnessing some of the new software tools developed to facilitate social networks and virtual worlds to support astrobiology research.
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Assessment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute NOTES 1. The NAI Web site can be found at http://www.nai.arc.nasa.gov. 2. The NAI Newsletter is archived at http://www.nai.arc.nasa.gov/newsletter/past_issues.cfm. The Web casts are archived at http://www.nai.arc.nasa.gov/seminars/indexall.cfm#2. 3. NAI seminars are archived at http://www.nai.arc.nasa.gov/seminars/indexall.cfm#4.