What can the discovery of gravitational waves teach us about cross-sector collaboration?

blogimage_GravWavesA lot, actually

If you grew up watching The Jetsons on Saturday mornings you don’t need an explanation of gravitational waves. Well, okay — maybe you do.

Gravitational waves are ripples or disturbances in the spacetime fabric that makes up our universe. Albert Einstein predicted their existence as a consequence of his Theory of Relativity. Gravitational waves are thought to occur when two objects with great mass (black holes or neutron stars, for example) collide in space, rattling spacetime like a giant melon dropped onto a trampoline.

If you’re plugged into science news, you know that scientists recently made the long-awaited discovery that gravitational waves do, in fact, exist. Using a hypersensitive detection system called LIGO (short for Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory), scientists detected the presence of gravitational waves through the two LIGO sites in Louisiana and Washington state.

What you might not know about this discovery is that it’s the result of a large-scale cross-sector collaboration. Those of us in the social change space often apply the collaboration lens to what are typically called wicked or seemingly intractable problems — education, public health, and economic development, for example. But cross-sector collaboration is really about coalescing resources and expertise to overcome challenges that outstrip what any one sector can do on its own. Detecting gravitational waves is one such challenge, and it holds lessons about cross-sector collaboration, even for those of us who are less scientifically inclined.

Partnering Across Sectors
LIGO is the brainchild of a few daring researchers, made possible by the the investment and advocacy of the National Science Foundation (NSF), built and managed by academic institutions, and advanced through the expertise and contributions of scientists from a variety of institutions across the United States and world. LIGO’s history dates back to the 1970s when researchers Kip Thorne of Caltech and Rainer Weiss of MIT met at a conference and began to share their interest in the discovery of gravitational waves. They soon brought Ronald Drever, formerly of Caltech, onto their team, and the researchers then convinced the National Science Foundation to fund their efforts to build LIGO. (NSF has now spent about $1.1 billion on the project.) LIGO was designed and is managed by scientists and engineers from Caltech and MIT, with additional support from more than 1,000 collaborators from the over 80 scientific institutions that are members of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration or LSC, which carries out the science of the LIGO Observatories.

Share a Vision of Success
A laser-like focus on a shared goal is key to driving forward collaborations among partners who are not governed under the hierarchy of one institution. A laser-like focus on a specific shared vision defines LIGO. Its goal is clear: “to make the first direct detection of gravitational waves, use them to explore the fundamental physics of gravity, and develop the emerging field of gravitational wave science as a tool of astronomical discovery.” The LSC reports that its 1,000 scientists “aim to work together in this common goal, each person contributing to some aspect of this grand search.” We refer to this commitment as Sharing a Vision of Success — the agreement on goals and outcomes that clarify mission and priorities for a collaboration. Defining a common purpose links stakeholders together and creates a mutual understanding of the benefits of success. In one indicator of how deeply LIGO’s work is perceived as shared among partners, the paper that announced LIGO’s findings listed more than 1,000 authors.

Establish a Governance Structure
Disparate partners often operate according to their own distinct institutional logics and hierarchies, but developing clear governance mechanism can provide structure to a collaboration and help partners navigate these differences. LSC has an intricate system of working groups and elected and appointed positions to ensure that all collaborators are making contributions that align with their interests and expertise and that all collaborators have some say in decision making. There are dozens of working groups for every aspect of LIGO’s work from data analysis to instrument science to educating the public on gravitational waves. These are “where all the science done within the LSC is discussed, where information is shared, and where all scientific activities are organized.” Every member of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration is expected to be active in at least one of the science working groups and many are active in more than one. Every member of LSC is also required to sign an MOU that establishes and defines a collaborative relationship between that member group and LIGO.

We refer to this formal organization of relationships, contributions, and decision-making schemes as Establishing a Governance Structure, the creation of a formal or informal organizational system for project management. Clear governance structures, such as committees, workgroups, or facilitated discussions, provide direction while ensuring equity and inclusivity to resolve actual or perceived power imbalances that can arise during collaboration. Indeed, LSC even has an ombudsman that is available to all of its working groups to facilitate the resolution of conflicts that may arise.

Commit to Information Sharing
Freely sharing information that may help the collaboration achieve its goals is another hallmark of successful cross-sector collaborations. Sharing information is central to LSC and and reinforced by MOUs. Each MOU is “an agreement for participation in the program as a whole, which requires sharing information” not only with LSC but “with other partners as well.” Also, all collaborators have access to the LIGO Data Grid, “a large, distributed, high performance computing infrastructure facilitating large scale analysis of data produced by gravitational wave detectors.”

We would call this feature Committing to Information Sharing, the requirement that partners share data. Openly sharing information, including disclosing sensitive facts, gives collaboration partners a more comprehensive understanding of the issue and has the added advantage of building trust among partners.

LIGO’s work is ongoing, and while the group has reached its key goal of detecting gravitational waves, achieving its remaining goals of using waves to explore physics of gravity and develop the emerging field will require continued dedication and collaboration among these partners.