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DG grad students learn the art of balance
Science and government have junior researchers serving two masters

dg.02002 Convenes
kristin eickhorst, photo by mack reed - USC/ISI

University of Maine's Kristin Eickhorst delivers a presentation at dg.o2002

Nobody ever said, "I'm going to be a digital government researcher when I grow up."

Yet, here they are, young researchers pursuing their PhDs on digital government research projects - and teetering along the thin line between doing work that pushes the science and serving their government partners.

"We want government agencies to get real use out of us, but we have to maintain the balance with rigorous research theory and practice," said University of Arizona researcher Rosie Hauck.

Hauck convened a workshop for digital government students to discuss their work, and their unique role, at the dg.o2002 conference in Redondo Beach. What emerged was a mixed picture of special opportunities and challenges.

Penn State geographer Frank Hardisty said his government partners want to see useful tools, and that's good - but they also want help, training and other services that Hardisty and other students may not be in a position to provide.

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"There's a bug - can you fix it?" Hardisty recalled a typical request.

"Yeah, 'Can you help me reformat my C drive?'" Oregon Graduate Institute researcher Shawn Bowers, added, remembering similar pleas.

Papers about digital government projects, almost exclusively cross-disciplinary, may be difficult to place in single-subject academic journals. There's always presenting at the dg.o conference, but it doesn't necessarily have the same cachet.

"Conference papers don't count in tenure and promotion review and decisions," Chienting Lin, technology adoption and diffusion researcher in the University of Arizona's MIS department, said ruefully.

dg.02002 Convenes
chienting lin, photo by mack reed - USC/ISI

Chienting Lin describes performance testing for University of Arizona's Coplink project

Often thrown together with their government partners, graduate students can come to be seen as project liaisons.

That's not always bad.

"Our government partner comes to us, not our advisor," said Bowers. "There's a lot of face time, and it's pretty fun."

Kristin Eickhorst, on the other hand, who is involved in the more technical side of her research project, has the problem of never seeing her partners. "I couldn't tell you who our government partners are," Eickhorst said.

Digital Government research has its own rewards. For one thing, the benefits are clear to the layman.

"To be involved in something that will be a benefit to a typical person is exciting," said Matthew Weaver of the Oregon Graduate Institute. "There's a lot of work to do; the government is a couple of decades back, as far as technology goes."

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Government partners appreciate the slower research pace; Industry can be more deadline, quick-answer oriented. The reality of science funding today is collaboration; researchers could do far worse for partners than Digital Government officials.

"It does give us an edge," Hauck said. "You can grab someone off the street and tell them what you do and he'll know why it's useful. We deal with real problems."