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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 interactionsbetween 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 achievedsome significant successes.