Scientists as Customers?

Would Karl Marx smile and nod sagely if he observed how scientists do their work today?What would a business efficiency expert say to a scientist today? I had these thoughts while recently thumbing through a new issue of the pop science magazine Nautilus. Because, right on page 3, there’s this:

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The text at the bottom is hard to read so here’s a detail:

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At first I thought nothing of it and just kept reading. But this announcement kept coming back to me, raising all sorts of questions. For example – At who is this message aimed? Presumably not many readers of Nautilus will be jetting off to Chile to use the Very Large Telescope or any of the other science facilities the European Southern Observatory operates.

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OK then, so this isn’t an advertisement to drum up visitors to Cerro Paranal or solicit proposals for telescope time.

No, something else is going on here. ESO’s advertisement must be read as a boast – it’s trumpeting the efficiency and effectiveness of its scientific facilities. Its observatories are, ESO claims, the “most productive” in the world. This is not the same as proclaiming that they produce the “best science” which is a much harder claim to make.

This focus on productivity, and its close cousin, efficiency, got me thinking about Frederick Winslow Taylor. In 1911,Taylor published his book The Principles of Scientific Management

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Although little remembered today, it’s one of the 20th century’s most influential books. In it, Taylor laid out a philosophy of managing workers and work flow with the aim of solving some of that era’s labor problems (and making business more profitable). In short, he wanted to get manual laborers to do more work in the same amount of time. Workers, to put it mildly, objected to Taylor’s intrusion into their workplace. Moreover, in some cases, they proved that Taylor’s methods were anything but scientific. When you read today about managers monitoring the workplace, keeping track of key strokes, and recording service calls – thank Taylor.

Shift from scientific management to managing science. Until the 1990s, telescopes used to be operated most often in what’s called “classical mode.” You can picture the scene – astronomer at the telescope, late at night, alone, cold, heroically working to unravel the mysteries of the Universe. Something like this, although maybe without the coat and tie:

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1936 image by Russell Porter of astronomer using the 200-inch at Palomar.

Fast forward 40 years…astronomers’ nightly work now looked very much like this.  As I’ve written, computers changed everything about how astronomy was done.

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Astronomer Caty Pilachowski, c. 1988, using 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak.

Along with computers came the introduction in the 1990s of what’s known as queue observing. In fact, computers and computer models made this possible. We might think of new way of doing science as an application of Taylor’s general goals of maximizing efficiency to science. Successful proposals for telescope time are put into an observatory’s queue and executed by staff astronomers when observing conditions are suitable. ESO operates its big facilities in Chile in this fashion, as do many other major observatories.1

Advocates of this queue observing stress that it enables science facilities can be used more efficiently. This isn’t trivial when a night of observing time can cost upwards of a $1/second. Opponents of queue scheduling argued that this mode of doing science might produce a generation of researchers who were, as Karl Marx might have said, alienated from the means of production. As one scientist remarked in 1996, “I am really worried about the Nintendo mentality in astronomy.”

Decades earlier, physicists accepted arguments about cost-effective use. At a 1966 meeting at the Stanford Linear Accelerator, for example, Berkeley’s Luis Alvarez encouraged colleagues to think in terms of the number of interesting “events per dollar” produced by ever-more expensive Big Science machines.

By the late 1990s, queue scheduling had prevailed at places like the Very Large Telescope and the international Gemini Observatory. Coincident with this was a shift in language about the effective use of science facilities. Look at the questions posed at a meeting in the mid-1990s to discuss telescope use:

The choice of language here is striking. Astronomers are referred to as “customers” seeking a product. So, what’s the product? As Matt Mountain, currently director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, told me in an interview several years ago, “We produce high quality, corrected beams of light pointed at the right direction at good instruments and detectors and collect the data.”

Queue scheduling allows on-site observers to select observing programs that are best suited for prevailing weather conditions. Moreover, telescope design has been done to increase the rapidity with which this “high quality” stream of photons can be switched from one instrument to another. (Observatories typically have several highly complex instruments clustered underneath or nearby the actual telescope.)

Queue scheduling at places like Gemini and the VLT was set up to maximize the efficiency and productivity. We might think of this emphasis on flexibility, efficiency, and productivity as resembling the famous “just in time” manufacturing techniques pushed by Japanese car makers in the 1950s (and widely admired by executives in the U.S.).

It’s this shift in telescope use – where efficiency is paramount – that is reflected in the advertisement ESO placed in Nautilus.

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Did the quest for better science drive the shift toward emphasizing productivity and efficiency? Yes, but that’s only part of the story. In the United States, these concerns followed larger trends. In 1993, for example, Congress passed the Government Performance and Results Act requiring each federal agency, including the NSF, to devise yardsticks to measure performance and progress. This was not just an American trend. European astronomers did similar studies evaluating telescope productivity. As ESO’s advertisement indicates, this way of thinking is still very much alive.

The need to demonstrate greater efficiency and productivity encouraged scientists to accept models and metaphors from the business world to describe observatory management and telescope operation. Astronomy in the 1990s, like particle physics in the 1950s and 60s, became a “big business” or, at the least, a very expensive one. The next generation of giant telescopes will drive this trend forward even more. Astronomers started describing observatories as “data factories.” So, perhaps its not a surprise that perhaps some observatory directors and their staff started to see the researchers who came to their facilities as customers.

None of this addresses the question of what one means by “productive” though. Is the proper metric of productivity the number of times a publication was cited? Perhaps it could be the number of scientific problems “solved?” Or prizes won by a paper published using data from a particular facility?

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Could a time come when observatories and other science facilities take a cue from the Golden Arches and simply tout the number of customers served? Let’s hope not.


  1. To be fair, I’m talking here largely about ground-based optical astronomers. Radio astronomers had long been accustomed to receiving data collected by others. And, of course, all space-based observations are done in queue mode. If you’re unclear why, watch this. []