The Labor Politics of Big Science: Infrastructure and Organizational Science in Oceanography
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The Labor Politics of Big Science: Infrastructure and Organizational Science in Oceanography



Presentation for the Annual Meeting of the Society of Social Studies of Science (4S) 2013 Saturday, October 12, 2013 4:00pm in San Diego, CA. Publication forthcoming. More info on 4S here: ...

Presentation for the Annual Meeting of the Society of Social Studies of Science (4S) 2013 Saturday, October 12, 2013 4:00pm in San Diego, CA. Publication forthcoming. More info on 4S here:

I recognize without text/context, this slide deck is somewhat elusive. For more information please feel free to email me at sbg [nine] [four] [at symbol] gmail [dot] com

All images are my own unless attributed.



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  • Over the last several months I’ve been engaged in field work with oceanographers building the field’s first real large-scale long-term infrastructure called the Ocean Observatories Initiative. The initiative is spread across the US, but one of our field sites happens to be about 20 minutes down the road at Scripps Oceanographic Institute at UCSD.
  • This is the OOI at Scripps. In March of last year I visited this site for the first time. The university library had recently been converted into a facility specifically for the OOI. The modern site was bustling with engineers and scientists working toward the development of the infrastructure. Over these walls you’d see folks organizing lunches, yelling about bad haircuts, and giving eachother hard times for missing last night’s happy hour. In my field notes I wrote:When I first walked in here, the modern converted library looked like a movie scene of scientific discovery as if Tom Cruise himself was about to burst in and draw his fingers along the glass walls with interactive projections of mathematical models (if you’ve seen Minority Report). The space was bustling with excitable energy ready to take on the frontiers of ocean research. People were everywhere, the mid-level "walls" between "offices" felt like an inviting space where neighbors could chat and easily gather This new building is just one of the many instantiations of new facilities that I would see built for the OOI.
  • As many people in this room will be acutely familiar, over the last 20 years, the US has invested significant funds into the development of large-scale, long-term technologies and infrastructure in order to accumulate big scientific data. As climate change, urbanization, and ocean acidfication permeate both our public and scientific dialogs about the earth, researchers and policymakers alike have been faced with the pressures of planning, constructing and maintaining new scientific systems to answer grand challenge questions and also challenge traditional organizations of science, expanding not only the functional capacity but also the imagination of science. The “Atkins Report” pictured up here, emphasized the need for sociology in this cutting edge time, to understand the cultural barriers that might affect adoption even after large investment.
  • Large investments like these. The National Science Foundation’s avenue toward building new cyberinfrastructure is the “Major Research Equipment and Facilities Competition (or MREFC), an account intended to fund highly technical undertakings that generally exceed the budgets found within a single disciplinary fund, like Biology, Ocean Sciences or Physics. MREFC funding has led to the development of cutting edge particle accelerators, telescopes, satellites and most recently ecological and oceanographic observatories, which constitute the subject matter of our paper but this talk will focus on oceanography.
  • Two months ago I had the pleasure and honor of making dinner with a group of reputable oceanographers. We chopped, grilled and filled glasses of wine over stories that are truly larger than life! About the kind of sick that comes from diving in the submarine ALVIN too many times in a month, turbulent seas throwing a man overboard who (I’m not kidding…) fought.a.shark and won to get back on board! (Seriously!) Standing atop a sheet of ice in the Arctic that is moving at a quicker speed than they had calculated and was quickly approaching a break zone where it would dismantle into ice cubes. That is the kind of very material very physical attachment that “classically” comes with a passion for and career in oceanography.Ocean science is very individualistic. Many participants referred to it as a "cottage industry“ (as in this quotation here). One participant that most oceanographers have not been interested in "the whole thing" (instead physical, geological, biological, ocean engineer) in a specific location- they all are interested in the whole ocean, but they piece off a specialization.A shift is taking place now toward understanding entire marine ecosystems -- and that... is really complicated! (Delaney)
  • The shift from cottage industry to big science has also been made in other fields, even those whose DNA is now very squarely within “big science” like physics or astronomy. Peter Galison for instance, speaks of the tensions of automation in physics, a shift from material culture centered on the apparatus to a digital culture with new struggles over control of information, where the locus of control went from the single apparatus and reoriented relationships with the laboratory around large machines of physics, where material and symbolic connections shifted from classical models of work on the bench top to new particle accelerators spanning larger than the size of a city block.
  • Our story is only incidentally about oceanography and ecology. There are good historical reasons to think about this relationship between infrastructure and labor politics.
  • And there are good present day reasons as evidenced by this quotation from one of our NSF informants. Most oceanographers will tell you that this shift toward big science and the OOI is a logical extension of trends in the field. But also our participants and historical accounts remark that the move has turned the romantic sea-faring characterization of oceanography on its head, introducing and necessitating larger collaborative efforts, open and shared data, increased industry presence, as well as new computational ways of performing field work and analysis. The rise of the observatory has placed continuous tracking and real-time public data in locations that normally required expedition, and thus taking away the need for ship-based research, and challenging most classical notions of what lies in the heart of the field.
  • In the interest of time I won’t get into the details of the OOI and MREFC as I had planned, but it is important to know the one unifying feature between MREFCs is the meticulous planning, documentation, oversight and auditing that is standardized across each project, regardless of whether it is a single thing, like ALMAs telescope, or a network of things, like the OOI.
  • We have interviewed almost 50 oceanographers and every single one of them spoke of the inability to reconcile their lifestyle with the bureaucracy and administrative overhead of the large-scale facility build and the MREFC process. Many directly identified a disconnect between the top-down, high modernist, meticulously scrutinized MREFC plans emanating from the NSF and the local, individualistic culture of the scientists on the ground. At the heart of this dialog is the same attention to local culture that runs through James C Scott’s stories of Brasilia, Suchman’s plans and situated actions, and de Certeau’s New York gaze. It is the broad tension between planning and everyday practice, the clarity of order and the unruly mess of situated action in the world that show up in the relationship between the work of planning in large-scale collaborative science and the messy forms of life they are meant to order and contain. Many participants expressed a deep and sometimes desperate worry that the future of their careers, their families and their livelihood is being affected negatively by not the introduction of the OOI, but the way in which the OOI is being introduced.
  • And through their stories, and their documents, and the news surrounding the OOI we see that these plans and the construction itself reorients the labor politics of the field, introducing novel organizations and roles, bringing to light new issues regarding credit, compensation, authority, security, and, at the broadest level, possibilities for a meaningful and sustainable life in science.
  • So I had a much different talk planned only yesterday… about what happens to ocean science when OOI does get constructed, so bear with me as I try this out… but I’m going to talk instead about what is happening during the OOI’s construction. This week, the PI of the OOI at Scripps gave me a desk to work at between interviews and meetings in this space. As I walked through the halls, I saw that many of the interviewees that I had such lively conversations with were let go (though I came to learn some are still active because they believe in the vision of it). Many of the folks who were part-time and junior have risen to full-time positions of power that they may have not necessarily desired – moving from something that looked like a service position that spoke to their core values and skills and now into more managerial administrative roles that do not resemble their interests, with titles like Project Manager and Operations Manager. Yesterday I wrote in my journal (which may now function as my field notes?):It's quiet in here. Really quiet. So quiet that I scratched my arm and immediately became acutely aware that my neighbor could actually hear me do that. I can’t believe you can hear a scratch. He hasn't popped his head over the low wall yet to introduce himself but he certainly knows that the person who used to sit here was fired two months ago. I, and my fast keyboard typing, are likely a bit mysterious to him. I know I have only one neighbor because I can hear the tip-tap of only his computer keys and I know he's a male because I was told who the only females left standing are, and I know their desks aren't this adjacent one. These modern constructions around me once felt like the scientific frontier, but they now feel like the panopticon, like a place of high surveillance.(What I once saw as progress now looks like some broken world that Steve J might write about.)This week I had two interviewees cry during our chat. One shed a single tear when my very first question of "So, tell me what you do" was met with "working 80 hours a week for four years. I have estranged my family." I came to understand this is 80 hours with no overtime. He's ostensibly valued his own time at about $8/hour or less... and more than that, no one has stopped him from doing so, so his colleagues have verified his worth at $8/hour. The people who were in this building are some of the best and brightest, particularly at the top of the food chain in the OOI, and we have somewhat taken them out of the workforce of basic science. These are literally people who have made discoveries that have changed our science textbooks over your and my lifetime. In fact in the early 2000s, one discovered the life does not require sunlight… and leave you with the ironic nature of that fact.They sit in this quiet grim room filing paperwork, complaining that they haven’t been to sea in years and worried that they won’t for another few years. They are worried that since they haven’t published since construction began that they won’t be able to go back into an academic job when this is over. They worry that they have not gathered data, built an instrument, published, spoken at conferences, taken out a research ship or gone on an expedition and so their CVs have only one new line… and a new line that doesn’t look very academic and instead looks administrative, managerial, and like something many have fervently expressed distaste for.
  • And this is a time of financial constraint. When the NSF first decided to fund the Ocean Observatories Initiative, we were in a very different financial climate and it was expected that with Obama coming into the presidency (with his platform espousing the importance of climate research) and money gained from the Recoveries Act Stimulus package that the amount of money available to the ocean research would only increase over the next ten years. Instead, the fiscal realities of a financial collapse, Gulf Oil Spill, Fukishima and now the government shutdown have presented significantly decreased disciplinary budgets in the NSF ocean sciences with the OOI standing like “a big white elephant coming online that we're going to have to feed every month or every year”In a nature article last week it was stated that by the end of its planned 25-year lifetime, the OOI will have cost nearly $1.8 billion — an unprecedented price tag in oceanography. It was said that in a presentation to the National Science Board last month, division director David Conover warned that the ocean sciences division is already spending MORE THAN HALF its money on maintaining facilities — at the expense of core science projects. And that percentage of facilities costs is only expected to grow.
  • … leaving less money in the rice bowl for basic research. Oddly, many of our participants used this phrase, the rice bowl. Once the OOI is built it has to be operated and maintained for the community, and anything that cuts the total amount of money available to individual grants diminishes the probability that any single person is going to get funded.Despite the long term infrastructure, the field is still operating on short-term soft money grants. Our participants have expressed how this soft money configuration, tied with the amorphous ways in which their CVs are building, and the decreased financial constraints are threatening their ability to feed their families, send their kids to the same school k-12 and then send them to college when that’s done, or even pay their mortgages.Because of this dynamic, there is much FearLack of UnderstandingA new upwelling of a conservative perspective that big science is not good scienceThe thought that the OOI “is going to put some of us out of work!“ and that those who are constructing it are putting their colleagues out of work.And on the contrary that… If we don't push the envelope on what we do, then what leadership role we have as US science will be lost!
  • In the spirit of 4S, I’ll leave on provocation, but I think some of what we are seeing here is that big science isn’t always better science. As STS scholars we are uniquely positioned to address these labor concerns and consider the deeply human consequences of infrastructural change in the sciences.
  • Thank you.

The Labor Politics of Big Science: Infrastructure and Organizational Science in Oceanography The Labor Politics of Big Science: Infrastructure and Organizational Science in Oceanography Presentation Transcript

  • The Labor Politics of Big Science: Infrastructure and Organizational Change in Ocean Science and Ecology Stephanie B. Steinhardt Steven J. Jackson
  • Big Science
  • “Ocean science has historically been a quite effective "cottage industry" of little operations in many locations - it hasn't had a NASA or an NCAR” “$700 million dollars! Not like sending something to Saturn, but this is a massive-scale construction for the oceans” (p5_sbs_27Jan13)
  • From bench top… Image: Wikipedia
  • … to city block. Image: Wikipedia
  • “There are going to be people who aren't interested in moving in this direction, but NSF is interested in this and 85% of ocean sciences funding comes from the NSF so... basic research is going to change form.” (p2_sbs_18Jan13)
  • “It's not been a pretty process and it definitely hasn't been efficient. One thing is that oceanographers tend to be pretty individually-minded so the community doesn't have the discipline of the space sciences.” (p9_sbs_13Feb13)
  • Consequences for Introducing Large-Scale Infrastructure • Unprecedented organizational structures • New forms of governance and investment • New scientific roles • Reorienting of labor politics
  • “The Rice Bowl”
  • Big science isn’t always better science. Image: Scientific American
  • Thank you! Stephanie B. Steinhardt Steven J. Jackson This work is supported under NSF #0847175