Musings on large collaborations

ATLAS, during final stages of assembly

I work in the very large ATLAS collaboration (3000 scientists). Everybody you interact with on a daily basis is part of the same technical effort, analyzing the same data and reaching towards similar goals. There is a lot of competition between members to get a good spot. I have been trying to elbow myself into a Higgs boson search since the beginning of the Fall, while trying to finish the project I began this summer and doing the service job that earns me my authorship. A good spot can be defined as working full-time on an important analysis (such as the search for the Higgs boson) and not having to do any service work.

These good spots exist almost entirely because of a quirk in human psychology. They are entirely made of perceptions. We have a strong tendency to interpret forces around us as intentional. We have learned to rationalize this tendency when it comes to the forces of nature. We don’t attribute lightning and earthquakes and tornadoes to gods anymore, we know that these things spontaneously arise under the right (also spontaneously arising) conditions. However, we still have a strong bias to attribute intentions behind forces in our sociological environment. We often say that things in our country, collaboration, corporation or friendship circles are the way they are because someone wanted it that way.

So the good spots in my collaboration exist because people tend to attribute a result from an analysis as the masterminded work of only a few people. People want to be perceived as the one who orchestrated the analysis, because those are the ones who are going to get the credit, the glory , the Nobel prize, etc.

Being incrementally involved in a very promising analysis over the past few months, I can say that an analysis is definitely the product of a whole lot more people than we want to believe. Original ideas that increase the reliability and significance of the final results are incorporated in the analysis frequently. None of these single ideas could yield a result on their own. Yet, they pile up into a coherent machine which then cranks out an observation about nature. We still want to badly get credit for what we contributed, but we are deluding ourselves if we think we are going to get it in the form of personal reconnaissance from the public.

There will be a Nobel prize for the discovery of the Higgs boson if it’s out there. I will make the prediction that its attribution (limited to three scientists) will appear arbitrary, and that it will leave many, many people unrecognized. It will be given to someone in a good spot. The idea of the Nobel prize in particle physics right now seems like bad joke to me, and a harmful one too. We would probably work better as a collaboration if we didn’t have people running around hunting for credit.

Here is another example of an unintentional force at work within a large collaboration. This one is driven mostly by outside competition, but it is reinforced by internal feedback. As scientists, we would very much like to be the first to point to the existence (or absence) of the Higgs boson. However, we are not alone in the race. We must pick up the pace if we want to have a chance at getting the credit (yes, credit again). So inside my own collaboration, we are very motivated to crank out new results quickly, if only to beat the competition.

Inside the collaboration, everyone is going fast because everyone else is going fast. If you want to have a chance to contribute to an analysis, you need to keep up the pace with others. If you are an extremely motivated person, you will end up going a little bit faster, and then people will try to keep up with you. You can see the feedback mechanism at work. This is good, since we are all eager to know more about nature, and we want it to happen within our lifetimes. However, this is also bad because we end up rushing results in, introducing mistakes and hurting our reputation as scientists. Then, we need to spend time correcting all this. I often wonder if the process wouldn’t be as fast (or maybe even faster) if we just took the time necessary to prevent these inconvenient byproducts of our high pace.

The funny thing is, everyone within the collaboration seem to agree with this point, but we still don’t act on it because it is out of anyone’s control. Nobody has any handle because the collaboration is an extreme case of a democracy, with very little hierarchy. This is a good thing for many reasons, but it may not be the optimal system. However, it is too late to revise the system now. The fusion reaction has started, and we cannot redesign the reactor until the reaction has run out. The collaboration has evolved its own structure over time, and we are stuck with many annoying features that can’t be corrected because they are busy components of the organism. You can’t shut these bad parts down or replace them without shutting down the whole organism. The only way to change anything is to go with slow, continuous transformations. It is not enough to figure out a solution: you need to figure out a path to get to the solution that will allow you to keep the machine running.

I personally think large collaborations are fascinating sociological experiments and I am thrilled to be part of one. I don’t face-palm to politics in it because most of it is an illusion. The collaboration is an unregulated runaway feedback process, exactly like a living being. Almost every force that shapes it is slow and coming from inside. The rest are environmental pressures like funding or theoretical expectations. There is something to learn here, and I would love to see some science being done. Any social psychologist out there who is up to the task?

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