Yes, your agency/foundation can sponsor world-class virtual organizations to transform the sciences


For VRVOs conviviality is essential

For VRVOs, conviviality is essential

I’ve just returned from the Summer meeting of the Federation of Earth Science Information Partners (ESIP). After nearly two decades of “making data matter”, ESIP continues to show real value to its sponsors. Indeed, the next few years might be a period where ESIP grows well beyond its original scope (remotely sensed Earth data) to tackle data and software issues throughout the geosciences. A good deal of the buzz at this year’s Summer meeting was a new appreciation for the “ESIP way” of getting things done.
ESIP champions open science at all levels, and this openness extends to everything ESIP does internally. ESIP is building a strong culture for the pursuit of open science in the geosciences, and remains a model for other volunteer-run virtual organizations (VRVO) across science domains. There are lessons learned here that can be applied to any arena of science.
I hope other agency sponsors will take note of ESIP when they propose to fund a “community-led, volunteer-run virtual organization.” In this letter I’m going to point out some central dynamics that can maximize the ROI for sponsors and enable these organizations to do their work of transforming science. One note: I am using the term “sponsor” here to designate agencies or foundations that fund the backbone organization, the staff of the VRVO. The work of volunteers is of course, not directly funded (apart from some logistic support).

The biggest picture
The real potential for any science VRVO to return value to its sponsors is realized as this organization develops into an active, vibrant community-led, volunteer-run virtual science/technology organization. To capture this value, the VRVO needs to focus on those activities that leverage the advantages peculiar to this type of organization, with special attention to activities that could not be realized through direct funding as, say, a funded research center. This is a crucial point. The real advantages that the VRVO offers to science and to its sponsors are based on the fact that it is not a funded project or center, and that the difference between it and funded centers (or facilities, or projects) is intentional and generative to its ROI.
The simple truth is that any volunteer-run organization will never be able to perform exactly like a funded center, just as centers cannot perform like VRVOs. Community-led organizations make, at best, mediocre research centers. Volunteers cannot be pushed to return the same type of deliverables as those expected by a center.
The biggest return that any VRVO will provide to its sponsors will come from circumstances where incentives other than funding are in play. In fact, adding money is generally a counter-incentive in these circumstances. Among these returns are the following:

  • A durable, expandable level of collective intelligence that can be queried and mined;
  • An amplified positive level of adoption to standards and shared practices;
  • An ability to use the network to create new teams capable of tackling important issues (=better proposals); and,
  • The ability to manage a diverse set of goals and strategies within the group, each of them important to a single stakeholder community, but all of them tuned to a central vision and mission.

Elsewhere I have outlined a larger number of such returns on investment. I continue to receive comments listing additional ones. I’ll do an updated list before the end of the year.

None of these returns can be funded directly by the sponsors, apart from supporting the backbone organization that in turn supports the VRVO. And none of these could effectively be funded through a center or other entity. They are predictable outcomes only of precisely the type of organization that the VRVO will, hopefully, achieve.

The real test for a science VRVO is to develop fully within the scope and logic of its organizational type. The concomitant test for the sponsors is to understand that sponsoring a new and different type of organization will require some new expectations and some period (a few years) of growth and experimentation to allow the virtual organization to find its own strength and limits.

Experiments, such as micro-funding are easier in a VRVO

Experiments, such as micro-funding, are easier in a VRVO

Governance NOT Management
One important lesson learned at ESIP is this: governance must never be reduced to management. Funded projects and centers are managed. VRVOs are  self-governed. Volunteer-run organizations are intrinsically unmanageable as a whole, and at their best. A VRVO can certainly house dozens or hundreds of small, self-directed teams where real work can be managed. ESIP “clusters” are good example. These teams can produce valuable and timely deliverables for science and for the sponsors.
The style of governance is also very important here. Attempts to shift governance away from the membership and into top-down executive- or oversight committees are always counterproductive. They give the membership a clear alibi to not care about the organization. Academics have enough alibis to not volunteer without adding this one. The members need to own the mission, vision, and strategies for the VO. Successful activities will emerge from initiatives that have been started independently and with some immediate urgency by small groups and which grow into major efforts with broadly valued deliverables. Bottom-up governance will outperform top-down management over the long term.

Science culture shifting
Probably the largest recognized impact that science VRVOs can make here—and perhaps only these can accomplish this—is to model a new, intentional cultural mode of producing science. This new cultural model will likely be centered on sharing (sharing is also one of the oldest cultural traits of science, only recently neglected). Sharing ideas. Sharing software, tools, techniques, data, metadata, workflows, algorithms, methodologies, null data, and then sharing results. Reuse needs to become a key metric of science knowledge (Cameron Neylon noted this at the original Beyond the PDF conference).
Transforming science means changing the culture of science. Science VRVOs must perform real culture work here. This is often a challenge for their sponsors, as these organizations are usually well situated at the center of the existing science culture. The key learning moments and opportunities, and perhaps the highest ROI for sponsoring a science VRVO is when this organization teaches its sponsor to change.

Three critical governance conditions any agency/foundation sponsor needs to heed.

There are three necessary conditions for an agency-sponsored, community-led organization to be accepted as legitimate by a science community.

  1. The sponsoring agency needs to allow the community to build its own governance. Governance documents and practices are not subject to approval or even review by the sponsoring agency, apart from needing to follow standard fiduciary rules. The sponsoring agency can offer input the same way other individuals and groups do, but the community decides its own practices. The metrics for the governance are the growth of volunteer participation, and spread of community involvement, the perceived transparency and fairness of decisions, and the community’s value placed on the work being done.
  2. The sponsoring agency has no right to review or in any way interfere with elections. All organization members have the right to run for office and to be elected.
  3. The agency’s sponsorship is designed to help the organization grow into its potential as a volunteer-run, community-led scientific organization. The returns on investment for the agency are multiple, but do not include tasking the organization to perform specific duties, other than to improve over time.

Postscript: of course, the golden rule of any volunteer organization, new or old, is this: DFUTC.

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