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Report of the Committee on Scientific and Technical Communication


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Part of: International Organizations and the Generation of the Will to Change (UAI Study Papers INF/5, 1970)


The Committee on Scientific and Technical Communication (SATCOM) was established in February 1966 by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering to investigate the present status and future requirements of the scientific and engineering communication with respect to the flow and transfer of information, principally in the U.S.A. The work of the Committee is closely related to that of the Joint UNESCO-ICSU Committee for a Worldwide Science Information Service.

This Report is important because of the manner in which its basic principles contrast with those of the UN Reports. The SATCOM Report is permeated by an awareness of the interdependence and variety of different types of autonomous organizations with their own interests and different but related needs and the importance of shared responsibility. Just as in the case of the UN system:

"Today in the United States, scientific and technical communication exhibits the characteristic heterogeneity of a system that evolved by fits and starts through adaptations to locally perceived needs and opportunities....decisions have been made, and are still being made, at numerous points and with a considerable degree of autonomy, often by leaders of scientific and technical societies who function as volunteers in the management of information programs.


"Though the performance of this heterogeneous aggregate of activities has been criticized on many counts, there is no evidence of critically inefficient operation or catastrophic failure....Therefore, rather than urging immediate and radical change at the present time, we see the implementation of recommendations directed toward more effective coordination, planning and decentralized management as the best means of coping with the growing and increasingly varied demands for scientific and technical information.

As a prime objective, we urge that the initiative of individuals, institutions, and organizations continue to be accorded substantial scope in the development and operation of those scientific-and-technical-communication services that they consider to be in their best interest. Such information activities should be designed and operated as individual and somewhat independent parts of a comprehensive network, and, as a matter of policy or principle, no attempt should be made to centralize them either physically or managerially." (SATCOM Report p. 20-1)

Problems of inter-organization relationships exist:

"SATCOM was strongly impressed by the evidence that currently existing mechanisms have not been sufficient to elicit the required degree of cooperation among private not-for-profit and for-profit organizations. Nor have the private organizations as a whole been able to work closely enough, and to their mutual benefit, with federal information services and systems. There is need for a body through which private organizations can coordinate their interests and cooperate with a similarly representative government group in formulating, and fostering acceptance of, necessary new or modified national policy." (SATCOM Report, p. 22)

"It is vital that the role of the government and private organizations be mutually reinforcing. Therefore, it is important that, as a basic philosophy of management of this country's information programs, the involvement of private organizations be encouraged by the government to the maximum extent possible".there are certain situations in which we feel that the not-for-profit organizations should be the preferred instruments for fulfilling a particular objective. In other instances, the for-profit organizations should be preferred.....

Since we believe that our pluralistic network of information activities has many advantages and strengths, we subscribe to a philosophy of shared responsibility between the government and not-for-profit and for-profit private organizations in the management of scientific and technical communication as outlined in the following recommendation." (see page 12; SATCOM Report p. 25-7)

"To minimize the delays and frustrations that so often beset professional groups striving for international agreements, the appropriate agencies of the federal government should explicitly acknowledge their responsibility to encourage and, if necessary, officially assist such groups in their efforts to set up and implement international agreements for sharing the work and products of scientific-and-technical-information services." (SATCOM Report p. 33)

"We feel that placing the intellectual management of primarily discipline-oriented services in the hands of the appropriate societies or groups of societies, when these exist, provides the insight and guidance generally essential to the effective operation of such services. Scientific and technical societies can enlist the efforts of highly competent and interested members who frequently will serve on a voluntary, part-time basis. Many qualified individuals who feel an obligation to assist with the communications programs of their respective fields of science and technology would not perform similar work on a full-time basis in a government organization....When the government seeks to provide these services to the public, rather than to secure them for the public, the substantive experts who should fulfill the role of public advocates and ensure the maximum value and responsiveness of the services often are employed in an operating role which sometimes detracts from or obstructs their power of deliberate review in the interest of the public." (SATCOM Report, p. 255)

The innovative importance of non-governmental bodies is stressed:

"Scientific and technical societies must develop, propose, and assist in implementing new and better ways to identify needs for critical reviews and data compilations and to further efficient preparation of them. They should also give greater emphasis to fostering awareness of the existence of such reviews among potential users ant stipulating education in their use." (SATCOM Report, p. 41)

The Report also shows awareness of the need to look at the whole process of information transfer.

"Most present information systems, particularly libraries, suffer from inadequate feedback mechanisms.....

Each formal link in the information-transfer process must function effectively and convey information to the next link to assure efficient communication....No matter how good information is, the advantages of having created it are lost or greatly reduced unless this marketing function receives sufficient attention".. The general belief is that, if the information is valuable, the people for whom it is intended will find it. In fact there is little basis for such a belief (SATCOM Report, p. 51-2)

The need for greater understanding of the overall network is recognized:

"...appropriate organizations should initiate and carry out comprehensive analyses of and experiments on the functioning of the different parts of the network of scientific and technical communication as well as of the network as a whole....To be meaningful, these studies will have to deal realistically with many elusive and complicated factors -- for example, inertia in behavioral patterns and its effects on the acceptance of new services or the interrelationships of various communications media." (SATCOM Report, p. 79)

The broad, inter-organizational network approach illustrated by these extracts is missing from the UN Reports. Regrettably, however, we are again faced with a report which is forced to limit itself in two ways: Firstly to the U.S.A. situation, although it is made quite clear that the U.S.A. network is considered merely as part of the worldwide network, secondly, to scientific and technical communication.

The point is not clearly made that other topics should be considered as forming part of the concern of a general communication network. And again, the bodies concerned with such non-scientific/technical topics are given no mention.

The Report does however make the point that

"With the expansion of the body of recorded information, the likelihood that all the information which could be of use in a given operation will have its origin in the geographic, temporal, or disciplinary neighbourhood of this potential point of application decreases."

and suggests that an area

"requiring attention and appropriate action relates to the slowly knitting, massive, mission-oriented programs of recent years which deal with major social concerns, such as natural resources, education, transportation, pollution, and urban problems. The role of science and technology in the resolution of these problems is not yet clear; therefore, the nature and scope of the information programs that they will require only gradually will become apparent." (SATCOM Report, pp. 256-7)

This indicates an interest in the use of science and technology for other domains, but there is no recognition of the importance, in their own right, of these domains for society, or of the interaction between the hard-core science information networks and those of other fields of interest, or of the need within the field of science for feedback from such domains to influence research priorities. It is however possible that the requirements of non-scientific users (see page 32), e.g. policymakers may introduce constraints which could, or should, modify the whole concept and philosophy of the future information network.

Finally, the Report is not concerned with the sort of information that is required for systems or programme management. The problems at the interface with such a management information network are not discussed.

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