Group Characterization

The planetary science group can be characterized as an informal interdisciplinary collaboration, driven by the good work relations that a handful of senior scientists have established with one another over many years. All group members study abiotic and/or biological processes on extraterrestrial surfaces, and all of them have an interest in combining the methods, concepts, literature and theoretical backgrounds from geology, physics, chemistry and microbiology. Group members perceive their collaboration as a success, and the group’s research is published in high- ranking international journals.

Since the group was founded about 10 years ago, there have been but few changes in the group’s core, that is, among those who regularly participate in weekly group meetings. At the time of my observations, the group consisted of five senior scientists and their students, doctoral fellows and post-docs who are working on a topic closely related to research on planetary surfaces. Usually, there are about two junior scientists involved in the group’s activities. Of the five senior scientists two, Adam and Rasmus, are physicists. The three others come from microbiology (Victor), chemistry (Christoffer) and geology (Laurits). All of them are hired on tenure by their respective disciplinary department and have departmental teaching duties. All of them also have their own laboratory. In administrative terms, they are not bound to the planetary science group. And, in fact, for most of them the research that they conduct in collaboration with other members of the group is just one, if an important, aspect of their scientific work.

When the group’s core gathers during weekly meetings, group members ask each other about the ongoing research and recent results, adapting the length and level of detail according to the listener’s interest and his or her understanding of the topic at hand. Often, a topic would not be of interest to all participants. Nevertheless, group members usually do not conduct parallel conversations until the very end of the meeting. The regular face- to-face contact that weekly meetings facilitate is important because the coordination of the group’s research does not follow any formal rules or plans in any narrow sense. Rather, “it is one question leading to another” as Laurits puts it (Laurits, interview, groupl), and the group’s mode of collaboration has to be understood as an open-ended deliberative process for whose continuous and iterative character the group’s weekly meetings are vital.

The group’s core is embedded in a wider network of collaborators most of whom are located at different universities. The wider network surrounding the group is amorphous and has unclear boundaries. For example, the minutes of weekly meetings are emailed to about 40 researchers at other universities in the country and abroad. The group also has cooperative relationships with other research groups in their field. And even more importantly, each senior core group member has accumulated his own personal contacts during his professional career. These contacts can be, and in fact are, drawn upon for research group matters, although they may be related to research interests outside the group’s focus.

The planetary science group is informal insofar as it does not constitute an administrative unit within the university structure. It exists alongside university hierarchies but is not part of them. The university administration acknowledges the planetary science group as an independent group and allows it to keep an independent budget for research-related expenses. The group also disposes of two dedicated laboratories that complement the laboratory facilities to which each senior group member has access through his respective department.

The smaller of the two laboratories consists of two adjacent rooms opposite Laurits’s office where abiotic material samples are stored and smaller instruments installed, among which are a high-temperature oven and a self-constructed device called the “tumbler." Below a casting chipboard, the device consists of an old washing machine motor that spins a wheel onto which shoe boxes can be mounted. Filled with sand samples or similar materials, the tumbling shoe boxes simulate surface erosion processes. Additionally, the group disposes of a much larger laboratory space in the basement below the physics department.

In addition, the group has a large laboratory space in the basement below the physics department where their central experimental facilities, simulation tunnels, are installed. The simulation tunnels are large submarine-like high-tech containers inside which planetary atmospheres—their temperature, their chemical composition, their winds—can be simulated. The tunnels have been designed and constructed by the group. At the time of my study, Laura, a post-doc and former doctoral student of the group, spends her time calibrating the newer, larger simulation tunnel and is learning how to handle simulation experiments under the supervision of Adam, one of the group’s physicists, who is responsible for their maintenance and operation in collaboration with Nikolaj, a crucially involved technician who works part-time for the group.

The group has a decentralized structure, cultivating an egalitarian group ethos and allowing group members to collaborate in changing coalitions inter pares. There is neither a discernible hierarchy nor scientific competition among the senior core members of the group, as each of them has their own specific field of expertise. Accordingly, the group functions without a leader in any conventional sense and has a spokesperson instead, a role which Laurits has been fulfilling during recent years.

Laurits represents the groups—both internally, with respect to university matters, and externally, with respect to outside contacts that are not mediated through personal acquaintance. In addition to scheduling and chairing their weekly group meetings, Laurits manages the group’s research budget, coordinates joint funding applications and conference attendance. His administrative tasks leave him with less time for research. Therefore, in contrast to other group members, he is forced to dedicate his research time almost exclusively to planetary surface matters. To be closer to other group members and the group’s large basement laboratory, Laurits has long given up his office in the geology department and taken office space in the physics department. But although he carries out a number of administrative functions and is crucial to the group’s internal communication, he does not claim leadership with respect to research. He has neither overall responsibility nor overall control or detailed oversight.

Lastly, to conclude my characterization of the planetary science group here, let me mention that there are varying accounts of the group’s beginnings. Both Laurits and Adam, one of the group’s physicists, have been involved in the planetary science group since it came into being about 10 years ago—and both of them describe differently its beginnings and the reasons for why it was formed in the first place. In my interview with him, Laurits foregrounds the role of his personal, geological interest in the research that the group carries out on extraterrestrial surface processes. He describes how he happened to discover a soil, a material that can be found in a place that is about a two-hour’s drive from the university. As it turned out, this soil has unusual qualities and can be employed as an analog for the kind of soils that, according to hypothesis, cover some planetary surfaces.

Adam, in contrast, attributes the group’s foundation to a side interest that a former physicist at the university had in the transport of small particles by wind. To pursue this interest, this physicist constructed a wind tunnel, a predecessor of the simulation tunnels that the group was operating at the time of my observation. According to Adam, the experimental potential of this first wind tunnel attracted the attention of colleagues from different disciplines. Successful publications and funding applications were written, and soon the cluster of collaborative activities that emerged around the wind tunnel morphed into a research group. Since the wind tunnel facility and the experiments conducted with it became more and more complex, Adam joined the group to take responsibility for the day-to-day operation and the technical development of the facility.

What the divergence in accounts of the group’s foundation shows is how different group members approach the group and their interdisciplinary collaboration with other group members from the point of view of their personal, disciplinary research interests. Despite this difference in perspective, however, the planetary science group succeeds time and again in interweaving individual research interests in a shared experimental practice.

 
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