I follow science fiction author, scientist, and futurist David Brin onFacebook and Google+. This weekend he posted a link to aPopular Science article listing the 10 Most Ambitious Experiments in the Universe Today. I was happy for the link, but troubled as I thought through the limited way ambitious experiments are supported in academic work more broadly. David said:

Modern science is big science: involving huge budgets, hundreds or thousands of scientists and generating ginormous amounts of data: Some you’ve heard of (The Very Large Array, ISS & Large Hadron Collider); some you probably haven’t: The Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, The National Ignition Facility, Advanced Light Source, and Spallation Neutron Source.

Over the years I’ve occasionally been a reviewer for National Science Foundation proposals focused on applying similar “big science” approaches to social science or when hard science is trying to use social science as a lever. These are always interesting proposals given the challenges they address and the research environment they must work within. Big projects need big teams, yet our publication and tenure modes haven’t caught up with this realization. My colleagues have written about different models of publication (e.g., collaborative review) and created open access repositories (SSRNSprouts), but I’ve yet to see these ideas revolutionize our process or play out in tenure review discussions. Publish or perish tends to put people into an individualistic mode of behavior. Tenure is a decision about an individual. Even in my field (and note that fields vary dramatically in their norms around authorship) where our findings are less likely to be scooped there is still competition for attention, if not the specific result. Also, we still take strong notice of who is first author and assume any paper with five plus authors is odd. I’ve been thankful that my current school is open minded around these issues. They (we) see value in co-authorship, publishing in multiple fields, and don’t limit credit by proportion of authorship -- though the five plus example is rare. That said, I have no idea what would happen if we were presented with a tenure case where the main (perhaps sole) outcome was from a big project. We have no norms and big projects with big lists of authors seem to be handled by exception. Perhaps these exceptions will eventually be recognized as mutations and will have the chance to be selected in but it will be an environment where the traditional tenure model is not the selection mechanism. We need big projects but we also need to make supporting adjustments in our organizations. I realized two days after seeing David’s post that the hardcopy edition of Popular Science has been sitting on my coffee table for days. The social signal of David’s post was far more powerful than even the cool cover art of the magazine.

  • We need collaboration for big results and we have technology that enables this kind of collaboration.
  • We need people to have access to our ideas, but we also need to proactively adjust our organizations to allow this kind of work to occur beyond the internationally funded mega-projects.

The National Science Foundation is doing its part by providing funding for larger and larger social science projects. What can the universities be doing to support new internal practices? Besides the methods of Big Science, are there other organizational models we could learn from?