I’ve speculated before about the factors that determine the length of the release cycle for climate models. The IPCC assessment process, which operates on a 5-year cycle tends to dominate everything. But there are clearly other rhythms that matter too. I had speculated that the 6-year gap between the release of CCSM3 and CCSM4 could largely be explained by the demands of the the IPCC cycle; however the NCAR folks might have blown holes in that idea by making three new releases in the last six months; clearly other temporal cycles are at play.

In discussion over lunch yesterday, Archer pointed me to the paper “Exploring Collaborative Rhythm: Temporal Flow and Alignment in Collaborative Scientific Work” ┬áby Steven Jackson and co, who point out that while the role of space and proximity have been widely studied in colloborative work, the role of time and patterns of temporal constraints have not. They set out four different kinds of temporal rhythm that are relevant to scientific work:

  • phenomenal rhythms, arising from the objects of study – e.g. annual and seasonal cycles strongly affect when fieldwork can be done in biology/ecology; the development of a disease in an individual patient affects the flow of medical research;
  • institutional rhythms, such as the academic calendar, funding deadlines, the timing of conferences and paper deadlines, etc.
  • biographical rhythms, arising from individual needs – family time, career development milestones, illnesses and vacations, etc.
  • infrastructural rhythms, arising from the development of the buildings and equipment that scientific research depends on. Examples include the launch, operation and expected life of a scientific instrument on a satellite, the timing of software releases, and the development of classification systems and standards.

The paper gives two interesting examples of problems in aligning these rhythms. First, the example of the study of long term phenomena such as river flow on short term research grants led to mistakes where a data collected during an unusually wet period in the early 20th century led to serious deficiencies in water management plans for the Colorado river. Second, for NASA’s Mars mission MER, the decision was taken to put the support team on “Mars time” as the Martian day is 2.7% longer than the earth day. But as the team’s daily work cycle drifted from the normal earth day, serious tensions arose between the family and social needs of the project team and the demands of the project rhythm.

Here’s another example that fascinated me when I was at the NASA software verification lab in the 90s. The Cassini spacecraft took about six years to get to Saturn. Rather than develop all the mission software prior to launch, NASA took the decision to develop only the minimal software needed for launch and navigation, and delayed the start of development of the mission software until just prior to arrival at Saturn. The rational was that they didn’t want a six year gap between development and use of this software, during which time the software teams might disperse – they needed the teams in place, with recent familiarity with the code, at the point the main science missions started.

For climate science, the IPCC process is clearly a major institutional rhythm, but the infrastructural rhythms that arise in model development interact with this in complex ways. I need to spend time looking at the other rhythms as well.

1 Comment

  1. Not everybody on MER had a problem with Mars time:


    “Personally, I loved Mars time. Loved it. I couldn’t get enough of it. It emphasized the uniqueness of what we were doing — nobody else in the world lived on such a schedule. Plus, I got 40 extra minutes of sleep every night — what’s not to love? But then, I’m a night person, and night people do better on Mars time. All the damned morning people on the project were miserable on Mars time — as miserable as I had been at their stupid 7:30 AM meetings during MER development — and that was a source of wicked pleasure for me. (Petty? Maybe. But I lived on their schedule for years; they lived on mine for just a few months before they caved. You can’t blame me for enjoying a little revenge.)”

    More generally, different work rhythms suit different people, not just on a daily basis but longer term, too.

    Mark Shuttleworth’s (of Ubuntu fame) attempts to bring a cadence to the open software, Linux particularly, release process seems more directly relevant, though:


  2. Pingback: Steve Easterbrook on collaborative rhythms « Monitoring, Modeling, and Memory

  3. Pingback: Do Climate Models need Independent Verification and Validation? | Serendipity

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