(I actually wrote this post a week ago while I was in China, but many social media sites are blocked in China. Sites for books, beer, and boardgames weren’t blocked though—so they must be less subversive?)
Since I’m having fun on a trip to Nanjing and Xi’an now, seeing old friends and colleagues and attending a conference (From Dark Matter to Galaxies), I figured I’d write a lighter post about international collaborations. By the way, for you Star Trek fans, this month it’s been twenty years since the end of The Next Generation, which had the ultimate interplanetary collaboration. (And this image is from the “The Chase” episode.)
In physics and astrophysics, and maybe in other fields as well, scientific collaborations are becoming increasingly larger and international. (The international aspect sometimes poses difficulties for conference calls over many timezones.) These trends are partly due to e-mail, wiki pages, Dropbox, SVN repositories, Github, remote observing, and online data sets (simulations and observations). Also, due to the increasing number of scientists, especially graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, many groups of people work on related subjects and can mutually benefit from collaborating.
On a related note, the number of authors on published papers is increasing (see this paper, for example). Single-author papers are less common than they used to be, and long author lists for large collaborations, such as Planck and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, are increasingly common. Theory papers still have fewer authors than observational ones, but they too have longer author lists than before. (I’ll probably write more about scientific publishing in more detail in another post.)
Of course, conferences, workshops, collaboration meetings and the like are important for discussing and debating scientific results. They’re also great for learning about and exposing people to new developments, ideas, methods, and perspectives. Sometimes, someone may present a critical result or make a provocative argument that happens to catch on. Furthermore, conferences are helpful for advancing the career of graduate students and young scientists, since they can advertise their own work and meet experts in their field. When looking for their next academic position (such as a postdoctoral one or fellowship), it helps to have personally met potential employers. Working hard and producing research is not enough; everyone needs to do some networking.
Also, note that for international conferences and meetings, English has become the lingua franca, and this language barrier likely puts some non-native English speakers at a disadvantage, unfortunately. I’m not sure how this problem could be solved. I’m multilingual but I only know how to talk about science in English, and I’d have no confidence trying to talk about my research in Farsi or German. We’ve talked about privilege before, and certainly we should consider this a form of privilege as well.
Finally, I’ll make a brief point about the carbon footprint of scientists and the impact of (especially overseas) travel. For astrophysicists, the environmental impact of large telescopes and observatories in Hawaii and Chile, for example, is relatively small; it’s the frequent travel that takes a toll. I enjoy traveling, but we should work more on “sustainability” and reducing our carbon footprint. There are doubts about the effectiveness of carbon-offset programs (see the book Green Gone Wrong), so what needs to be done is to reduce travel. Since conferences and workshops are very important, we should attempt to organize video conferences more often. In order for video conferences and other such organized events to be useful though, I think more technological advances need to be made, and people need to be willing to adapt to them. Another advantage to these is that they’re beneficial for people who have family, children, or other concerns and for people from outside the top-tier institutions who have smaller budgets. In other words, video conferences could potentially help to “level the playing field,” as they say.