For years, space physicist Robert Clauer would trek off to Greenland once or twice a year to gather data on the upper atmosphere. He would fly four or five hours in the back of a cold cargo plane to reach a site where he would sit for days in a trailer crowded with instrument displays. When he wasn’t busy observing, he could step outside to admire the aurora borealis or watch a passing herd of caribou. The experience was rugged, and sometimes exhausting, but it satisfied his soul and his scientific curiosity.
Today Clauer does the same kind of research, but he doesn’t have to go to Greenland to do it. Rather than travel physically, he is now linked via computers in an experimental “electronic collaboratory” project with other space physicists. The electronic links enable them to initiate experiments from their desktops and study data collected from radar instruments in Greenland, Canada, Norway, and the United States and from space-based satellites. Through chat boxes on personal-computer screens, the researchers can put their heads together to interpret data and compare real-time observations to theoretical models generated on supercomputers.
“They are doing something revolutionary in their science,” says Gary Olson, a University of Michigan cognitive scientist who helped develop the collaboratory that the space physicists are using.
A collaboratory, as defined by computer scientist William Wulf, who coined the word in 1989, is a “center without walls” in which users can “perform their research without regard to geographical location-interacting with colleagues, accessing instrumentation, sharing data and computational resources, [and] accessing information in digital libraries.” Underpinning such a setup is computer software-some designed specifically for the collaboratory and some borrowed from other applications-that enables people at various sites to work on experiments simultaneously. Shared access to electronic notebooks and whiteboards, videoconferencing capabilities, and other such technologies enhance the feeling of being “down the hall while across the country,” as James Myers, who leads a collaboratory project in environmental research, puts it.
No one can yet say whether this way of working together is all for the better. Electronic collaboratories do seem to increase opportunities for mentoring; they may raise the frequency and, possibly, the quality of interactions among participants. In some kinds of work, electronic links foster interdisciplinary cooperation, provide access to a wider range of instruments and information, and help narrow the gap between theory and experiments. But something is lost, too, when people interact with instruments and peers from afar. Sitting in front of a computer is no match for traveling to interesting parts of the world, and it’s hard to develop trust in people you’ve met only through electronic channels. What is immediately apparent is that as the future unfolds, ever more people will collaborate electronically.
The first formal discussion of collaboratories occurred at a 1989 National Science Foundation workshop convened by Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg, president emeritus of Rockefeller University, and Keith Uncapher, senior vice president of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives and dean emeritus of the University of Southern California’s College of Engineering. Today, Olson estimates that two dozen or more collaboratories in science, medicine, business, and education are under way, in fields ranging from diesel engine design to worm genetics.
Through the Michigan-based Upper Atmospheric Research Collaboratory (UARC), for example, scientists share access to radar and other instruments to study “space weather”-phenomena such as magnetic storms that originate on the sun and can interfere with radio and television reception, disrupt electrical-power transmission, and threaten orbiting spacecraft and astronauts. The Collaboratory for Environmental and Molecular Sciences, based at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., allows scientists in different fields and at many sites to work together on environmental problems, sharing analytical instruments, expertise, and a powerful supercomputer. The Department of Energy is sponsoring two new collaboratories that will link researchers at government laboratories and universities. One is aimed at designing diesel engines that produce less pollution; the other will explore ways to make corrosion-free materials. Even school kids are logging on to the collaboratory concept. Northwestern University’s Collaborative Visualization (CoVis) Project gives kindergartners through 12th graders in 11 states tools to explore the earth’s atmosphere and pick the brains of professional scientists.
The collaboratory has important implications for the corporate world as well. Olson says he has talked to “dozens of companies that are interested in using collaborative technologies to support their work.” Finding ways to work effectively with distant colleagues is one of the most important issues today’s managers face, he adds: “All of the auto companies, all of the aerospace companies, all of the big hardware and software vendors, all of the telecommunications companies are worrying about this.”