The University Record, January 25, 1999

Collaborative technology can help connect Third World scientists

By Nancy Ross-Flanigan
News and Information Services

Scientists from developing countries who return home after being trained in the United States often have trouble staying involved in cutting-edge research. Collaborative technology could help keep them in the loop, says Gary M. Olson, professor of information and interim dean of the School of Information.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advanced of Science during a session on “Science and the Internet: Globalization, Cooperation, and Development,” Olson discussed U-M “collaboratory” projects that allow scientists all over the world to work as if they were in the same place.

In one collaboratory project, Olson and other U-M researchers have developed and evaluated suites of computer-based tools that allow space weather researchers in different countries to share access to data, computer models and even scientific instruments scattered around the world. Although most of the scientists involved in the space weather project are from North America, Europe and Asia, experiences with this project suggest that the collaboratory approach also could attract researchers in more remote parts of the world.

For example, in the space weather collaboratory, a core group of scientists works together during intensive observing “campaigns,” but other scientists, as well as students, teachers and interested onlookers, are welcome to log in to see what the researchers are up to. During one campaign, several curious Russians checked in from time to time.

“Scientists in Russia often experience a sense of isolation because they aren’t able to travel to meetings, but this gave them a way to participate,” Olson said.

Through the same project, faculty and students at small universities have gained access to expensive, distant instruments they normally wouldn’t be able to use. They’ve also been able to interact with a wider range of scientists than they otherwise might encounter. Opportunities such as these could help keep Third World scientists connected and contributing to advances in their fields, he said.

One obvious obstacle is access to computers and Internet connections. Wireless technologies may help overcome that problem, Olson said.

Other problems are more sociological than technological. In their work on collaborations, the U-M researchers pay careful attention to how people use collaborative tools and how those tools change the nature and quality of their work. One lesson they have learned is that most people need to adopt collaborative tools gradually, mastering a few before adding others. By working closely with users, the group has assembled suites of tools that fit not only the users’ needs, but also their “collaborative technology readiness,” Olson said.

A question that still needs to be investigated—and that could have implications for Third World scientists—is whether collaboratories will shatter or reinforce scientific hierarchies.

“If you allow the participation of new sets of people, how do the established ones accept them?” Olson asked. From what the researchers have seen so far, the answer may depend on several factors, such as how competitive the field of research is, whether it has an established tradition of international collaboration, and whether the participants ever have a chance to meet face to face, which seems to be a key to developing trust.