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.