This paper discusses the historical connections between two large-scale undertakings that became exemplars for worldwide data-driven scientific initiatives after World War II: the International Geophysical Year (1957–1958) and the International Biological Program (1964–1974). The International Biological Program was seen by its planners as a means to promote Big Science in ecology. As the term Big Science gained currency in the 1960s, the Manhattan Project and the national space program became paradigmatic examples, but the International Geophysical Year provided scientists with an alternative model: a synoptic collection of observational data on a global scale. This new, potentially complementary model of Big Science encompassed the field practices of ecologists and suggested a model for the natural historical sciences to achieve the stature and reach of the experimental physical sciences. However, the program encountered difficulties when the institutional structures, research methodologies, and data management implied by the Big Science mode of research collided with the epistemic goals, practices, and assumptions of many ecologists. By 1974, when the program ended, many participants viewed it as a failure. However, this failed program transformed into the Long-Term Ecological Research program. Historical analysis suggests that many of the original incentives of the program (the emphasis on Big Data and the implementation of the organizational structure of Big Science in biological projects) were in fact realized by the program's visionaries and its immediate investigators. While the program failed to follow the exact model of the International Geophysical Year, it ultimately succeeded in providing a renewed legitimacy for synoptic data collection in biology. It also helped to create a new mode of contemporary science of the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER Network), used by ecologists today.

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