FastLane: Managing Science in the Internet World by Thomas J. Misa, Jeffrey R. Yost
By Thomas J. Misa and Jeffrey R. Yost. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015. Pp. 224. $34.95.
If you conduct academic research in the United States, chances are good that you will eventually use FastLane, the National Science Foundation (NSF) internet portal for submitting, reviewing, and administering research proposals and grants. This book reveals how FastLane developed alongside the commercial Internet, explores the roles of user-centric and user-driven innovations, and shows how information infrastructure evolved together with an enormous research community, which was dispersed across the United States. [End Page 190]
FastLane: Managing Science in the Internet World provides an impressive methodological model for researching user-centric histories of information infrastructure. It is based on over 800 interviews with FastLane users at twenty-nine U.S. universities and within NSF; 643 interviews are publicly accessible online. This database represents the diverse institutions that NSF was chartered to serve, including elite top-tier universities, schools in under-resourced states, and historically black colleges and universities.
Drawing on this rich database as well as archival sources, FastLane illustrates the institutional embeddedness of technology, and the technological embeddedness of institutions. Chapter 2 roots NSF’s information technology needs in the agency’s 1950 founding charter, which balanced scientific autonomy against political accountability and representation. NSF managed these tensions by funding specific research projects that were evaluated by peers but ultimately selected by NSF program officers, ensuring Congressional accountability. These requirements meant that “an avalanche of paper—proposals, reviews, assessments, and reports—was soon aimed at and flowing through NSF’s Washington offices” (p. 23).
In the mid-1980s NSF began to adopt desktop computers, particularly after the 1984 appointment of the prominent computer engineer and manager Erich Bloch to the position of NSF Director. Some NSF staff began to experiment with automating work processes, and in 1986, computer scientists from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Michigan started “Experimental Research in Electronic Submission” (EXPRES), a predecessor to FastLane.
Chapter 3 discusses how FastLane was developed in tandem with the commercial Internet. In the mid-1980s, NSF helped to establish the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois. NCSA subsequently developed the Mosaic Internet browser, which helped dramatically expand Internet use. It also developed the Common Gateway Interface (CGI) software, which allowed browsers to access databases and create dynamic web pages that were customized for specific users. These technologies enabled Amazon to enter e-commerce just as they enabled NSF to create individually customized web pages for researchers to submit and review proposals.
Chapters 4 and 5 investigate the “lead user” roles of principal investigators and research administrators, respectively. These users were involved throughout the FastLane development process, which was crucial to the project’s success. Nonetheless, the process was not entirely smooth. NSF made the controversial decision to require the conversion of files to PDF, a proprietary format that arguably impeded researchers who could not afford to purchase third-party software. Although FastLane provided means of converting documents to PDF online, the technology was glitchy even after FastLane became mandatory in 2000, and some researchers never learned whether the reviewers saw a proper rendering of what they submitted. [End Page 191]
Were researchers at universities with fewer resources disadvantaged by the requirement to use FastLane? Researchers at historically black colleges and universities did experience relatively more obstacles due to lack of access to technology. Sponsored Research Offices (SROs) were also better resourced at some schools than others, although none of the offices were forced to increase staff size to deal with FastLane. Overall, interviews suggest that both principal investigators and research administrators were positive about FastLane, although they also made recommendations for improvement.
Chapter 6 examines NSF staff as “legacy” users. Although the shift to the electronic office reduced the volume of mail sent to NSF—which had justified an NSF zip code—proposals continued to be managed primarily on paper for several years after FastLane launched. The internal-facing grants management program, e-Jacket, was less well-resourced and developed more slowly than external-facing aspects of FastLane. While NSF did not eliminate any staff with the transition to electronic media, work roles changed in ways that some found to be dissatisfying.
A concluding chapter examines legacies, lessons, and prospects for FastLane, noting that “Computers change society, and it is because social, cultural, and institutional values can be embedded in them that the details of computing matter so deeply” (p. 162). This book serves as a model for historians who study the entanglement of such values with information infrastructures and other complex technological systems.
Rebecca Slayton is assistant professor at Cornell University with a joint appointment in the Science & Technology Studies Department and the Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies.