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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