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Thirty Meter Telescope

The Project Manager's Corner: Big Science Sharing Lessons
Gary Sanders, TMT Project Manager

September 2006

Outside the window I can see golden orange leaves, evergreens, a dusting of snow on the mountains of Aspen, and blue skies with puffy clouds. One of nature’s breathtaking landscapes surrounds the Aspen Institute of Physics. I am here, reflecting, just as an internal TMT review is coming to an end, awaiting the arrival of leaders and oversight officials of other major scientific projects for several days of sharing lessons and techniques in the management of big science projects.

The large scale of the TMT project is a high-water mark for ground-based astronomy. Roughly comparable to the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) project in radio astronomy, TMT will require a level of planning, design management, scheduling, resource management and performance measurement not common in ground-based astronomy projects.

The same challenge exists in other scientific fields. In high-energy physics, a field that first emerged as a practitioner of big science, even after decades of building large accelerators, major detectors and complex data processing networks, the record of successful execution of projects is spotty. Perhaps as a pioneering field at these scales, this was inevitable. Some projects experienced major overruns. Others suffered cancellation (ISABELLE at Brookhaven, and the Super Collider in Texas). But high-energy physics, as a field, has been a laboratory for developing the expertise in organizing and executing major science projects. Last month I visited CERN in Switzerland and enjoyed seeing the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) project entering its endgame. This was very satisfying.

The next mega-project, the International Linear Collider, is breaking new ground in forming global consensus, in global concurrent design and in global project communication. The ILC is an impressive scientific project, a high-water mark for that field. In fact, I must confess that I am learning much from watching that project. The ILC Newsline, a remarkable weekly electronic newsletter, is the prototype for this monthly TMT Newscast. Imitation is the best form of flattery.

High-energy physics and astronomy, however, share a major attribute. The big projects are focused on delivering a single major tool. A telescope with a few science instruments. An accelerator with a few detectors. But science, across all fields, does not stand still. The technology of science inspires and breeds new models of organizing research.

In high-energy physics, participants no longer have to travel to the distant accelerators to acquire data and to analyze data. The World Wide Web, invented at CERN to share data from high-energy physics, has impacted nearly every person on earth. The technology of wide-area networks has transformed high-energy physics data analysis. In addition to obviating the need to travel to a central location, the computing power to analyze data no longer has to be located at a central place. New models of distributing computer power for data processing and analysis over extended computing "grids" allows scientists everywhere to work together in a virtual global laboratory, a laboratory without walls. High-energy physics on a computer grid enables the LHC data activity.

This new cyberinfrastructure reaches out to transform other fields. In ecological biology, the North American continent can now be instrumented as a whole with distributed sensing instruments, linked by cyberinfrastructure, to enable continental-scale observations, data sharing, and data analysis in a coherent manner. The continent can be studied for large scale movements of invasive species, for the carbon budget of North America and other eco-frontiers. The National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) is the first big science adventure of ecological biology.

Scientists in this field have not traditionally worked at these scales and techniques of big science have to be imported into the practices and culture of the field. This transformation may be uncomfortable to that scientific community but the science promise is enormous. This new opportunity is being developed by the US National Science Foundation.

Ocean observing, the continental hydrologic system, the seismic picture of North America—all are being addressed by major distributed sensor and cyberinfrastructure networks that constitute virtual continental-scale laboratories. These new environmental tools are importing and adapting the methods of big science developed in other fields. In each case, the techniques must be adapted to the culture of these diverse scientific communities.

How can the lessons learned by those of us who have delivered single science tools be shared within our communities, and shared with these new communities in biology, environmental sciences and geology? Can we coach each other in the techniques of managing science, and in the anthropology of our science communities, so that we expand the capabilities of diverse scientific tribes?

During the last six years, over seven workshops (including one that starts October 2), I have been privileged to use the support of the National Science Foundation to bring together big science project leaders and funding agency oversight officials to share basic technique lectures and to share actual projects as case studies. Attendees have come from several funding agencies (US Department of Energy, NASA, NSF), national and international laboratories (Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Fermilab, Los Alamos, Livermore, CERN, European Southern Observatory, etc.), and many big projects.

These meetings have been very interactive and methods have been shared, partnerships have been established and networks for advice and review have formed. The October 2006 meeting involves participants from major projects in astronomy and high-energy physics, cyberinfrastructure institutes, national laboratories, distributed projects, and funding agencies who will engage in several very stimulating days of interaction. And one anthropologist will participate to help keep us focused on our communities.

Much of the work of TMT lies ahead for our project team. I’m sure that I will pick up some new techniques and insights, and share a few of my own. For me, this helps to assure that TMT will use the very best practices as our larger community works together to keep the success rate high for all science projects.

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