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Report from Cyberinfrastructure Workshop, August 14-15, 2017

By Nancy Wilkins-Diehr

Nancy and Michael Zentner attended the Cyberinfrastructure Workforce workshop, the fifth in a five part series of Research Coordination Network (RCN) meetings sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The broad topic is Managing Collaborative Research Centers.

The first workshops were held at the University of Georgia (“Managing CI Centers” and “CI Executive Session”). The next was held at Case Western in 2012,“Virtual Organizations as Sociotechnical Systems”. “Leading Cyberinfrastructure Enterprise” was held at the University of Michigan in 2013, “Knowledge Infrastructures” at the University of Washington in 2015, “Professionalization in Cyberinfrastructure“ at the University of California, Santa Barbara in early 2017 and finally the “Cyberinfrastructure Workforce” event here in Alexandria, Virginia August 14-15, 2017.

This workshop interspersed keynote talks (Sushil Prasad, NSF, “Cyberinfrastructure Workforce & NSF”,  Alexander Oettl, Georgia Tech, “Collaboration, Stars, and the Changing Organization of Science” and Dan Reed, U Iowa, “Crossing the Intellectual Desert: Building and Sustaining Multidisciplinary Teams”) with breakout topics.

Attendees were a very interdisciplinary group of about 50 historians, public policy, School of Information, College of Business and CI professionals and leaders. In general, attendees had either cyberinfrastructure expertise or organizational expertise.

Susan Winter, the original NSF program officer for this work and now the Associate Dean for Research at the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland provided background on the need for this RCN. No longer do we see single scientists working alone. Now science is frequently done by large teams - dozens of countries, hundreds of computing centers, an army of people that enable this big science. CI is this enabling domain for big science. The issues faced by these teams are socio-technical—not just social, not just technical. This RCN was formed to bring organizational people and social scientists together with CI people to explore collaborative opportunities. The NSF recognizes this shift in the way science is done and all NSF directorates contributed to the funding of this RCN.

The first day included two breakouts. The goal of the first was to surface the issues that are interesting to CI participants. What do we need badly? The second was to give the CI professionals the chance to hear about the work of those with an organizational or social science background. Two fascinating projects I heard about was an analysis of users’ behavior in GitHub (Youngjin Yoo Professor, Design & Innovation, Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University) and policy work around open data for government (Anne Washington Digital Government Scholar, Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University) and studies on how to conduct an effective hack-a-thon (Alexander Nolte Research Associate, Institute for Software Research, School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University).

I found Alexander Oettl’s keynote particularly compelling. With a title like “Collaboration, Stars, and the Changing Organization of Science”, I was expecting a talk about telescopes. Instead, Alexander talked about research productivity—“stars” who publish the most papers. He had data on how high-performing individuals compared to the median. Was the .1% 20x more productive than the median? 50x? What about the top 1% or 10%? How does this vary across fields? Alexander also looked at how collaborations form and how the geographic distance between collaborators has increased over time.

Finally, we talked about CI workforce challenges, non-standard career paths we have all taken to get where we are and how difficult it is for others to follow the same ad hoc paths. I came away from this event thinking about how I could improve the working environment for my team in XSEDE’s Extended Collaborative Support program, what this means for the gateway groups SGCI is trying to develop on campuses and—a little more orthogonal—how to collaborate with social scientists to understand how researchers use science gateways.