Collaboration, Alignment and Leadership by David Fulker

September 25, 2008 at 9:00 am Leave a comment

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This essay compares and contrasts—from my personal perspective—four projects funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) that have depended critically upon medium- to large-scale collaboration. This characteristic distinguishes them from most NSF-funded projects, as typified by the Program Officer for one of the four: “The NSDL program is an unusual program for NSF in that its projects are engaged in building an enterprise much larger than the object of any one grant. Indeed, the success of the program rests squarely on the extent to which the many projects can embrace this collective sense of identity and mission.” [Zia 2001] Though similarly reliant on collaboration, the four projects had significantly different outcomes, and the purpose of comparison is to consider why, with particular emphasis on matters of leadership.

Four Highly Collaborative Projects

The NSF’s research and education portfolio includes many goals and objectives that can be achieved only through collaboration. This requirement can arise from joining multiple disciplines or from matters of scope and scale, as shown by four examples spanning nearly three decades (with dates approximately as indicated, ignoring their incubation phases).

  • NSFNET (1984-1995) – NSF’s goal of a single internet, built on lessons learned with ARPANET, BITNET, CSNET and others, but yielding interoperable connectivity across all of academia (and, eventually, the entire non-academic world) [Leiner et al., 2000], required an extraordinary level of collaboration across:
    • Geographic regions as well as institutional and political boundaries.
    • Engineering and research, to create reliable infrastructure from innovation.
    • Established networks on which many constituents already were relying.
    • Public and private institutions, building commerce upon research results.
  • Unidata (1983-Present) – In funding Unidata, the goal of the Atmospheric Sciences Division (ATM) was to help universities employ computing and communication technologies to access, display and analyze scientific data [Sherretz & Fulker 1988]. Envisaged as a merging of systems from several universities, this entailed modest collaboration from the outset, but Unidata evolved to be so participatory that it eventually was described as a “collaboratory” [Fulker et al., 1997] and cited as a “virtual community” [Rodrigues et al 2004]. This required collaboration among or across:
    • Institutional boundaries and large distances.
    • Engineering and research, to create reliable systems from university prototypes.
    • Builders of (incompatible) systems, on which constituents already were relying.
    • Researchers and educators, whose data interests are similar but distinct.
  • DLESE (1999-2006) – The Geosciences Directorate (NSF/GEO), with assistance from NASA, embraced an ambitious agenda when it established the Digital Library for Earth System Education (DLESE): “… a program plan and structure for the establishment of a national digital library that promises to have a profound impact on geoscience education at all levels. … It will also provide an important vehicle for facilitating the implementation of the Earth and Space Science component of the National Science Education Standards.” [Mayhew 1999] This required collaboration among or across:
    • Institutional boundaries and large distances.
    • Engineering and research, to build reliable systems from prior research work.
    • Geoscience disciplines that, in some cases, had minimal common history.
    • Geoscience researchers, educational researchers and educators.
  • NSDL (2000-Present) – The goal of the Education and Human Resources Directorate (NSF/EHR) in forming and funding NSDL was similar to that for DLESE [1] except for its larger scope: “The resulting virtual institution is expected to catalyze and support continual improvements in the quality of science, mathematics, engineering, and technology (SMET) education in both formal and informal settings.” [Zia 2001] Also similar to DLESE, but more explicitly, expectations for NSDL were informed by digital-library research initiatives that began in the early 1990s (under the Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate of NSF) [NRC 1998]. The NSDL initiative required collaboration across:
    • Institutional boundaries and large distances.
    • Engineering and research, to build reliable systems from prior research work.
    • Established libraries, digital and physical, on which constituents were relying.
    • SMET disciplines that, in some cases, had minimal common history.
    • Digital-library researchers, educational researchers and educators.
    • Public and private institutions, to evolve publishing practices.

A cursory placement of these four projects in James Austin’s engagement continuum (Figure 1.) indicates that all four rank high, i.e., the collaborators are deeply involved.

Austin Engagement Continuum

Figure 1: Austin Engagement Continuum

Figure 1: Reproduced [Austin 1999] with permission [BEING SOUGHT]. Each of the four projects analyzed here ranks high on several of the listed criteria. In general, project collaborators have integrative relationships, play roles of central importance to the mission, cope with relatively high managerial complexity, and aim for magnified social value.

[1] Though DLESE became one of the libraries that incorporated itself into NSDL, and received NSDL funds, this author sees the two libraries as distinct. Indeed, DLESE was functioning before most of NSDL and relied upon significant independent funding (primarily from the Geosciences Directorate at NSF).

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Entry filed under: NSDL Core Integration. Tags: , , .

Reflections on NSDL by Frank Wattenberg “NSDL-Style” Networks: Connecting Across Audiences & Disciplines by Laura Bartolo

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Welcome to NSDL Reflections!

We are collecting the "reflections" on the collaborative development of the National Science Digital Library (NSDL). This site is a place for NSDL participants to “tell the story” of how they think NSDL was formed, grew and is continuing to grow. And for the community to discuss and learn from these reflections.

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