E-culture marches on

March 2, 2001

The government is putting financial muscle behind e-science, with £98 million going to a range of projects. Caroline Davis reports.

The government says that e-science is "science increasingly done through distributed global collaborations, enabled by the internet, using very large data collections, terascale computing resources and high-performance visualisation". And it wants the United Kingdom to participate fully in its growth. In November's science budget, £98 million was committed to fulfilling this vision for the future, giving each research council funding to pursue its own applications. In addition, it set up a core programme for e-science common to all research communities and overseen by the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council.

David Wallace, vice-chancellor of Loughborough University, will chair the e-science steering committee, which will oversee all programmes. Comprising academics, industrialists and international experts, it will ensure that the research programmes are coherent and fulfil the needs of the various communities.

The core programme will be driven by a technical advisory group of academics and industrialists, headed by Tony Hey, currently dean of engineering at Southampton University and an expert in quantum computing. The group will identify up to ten generic grid technologies, which will underpin the individual application areas, for example scaleable networks, shared environments, access and security issues and metadata. It will then manage research in these areas, bringing people together in teams made up of academics and business people. Projects may be linked to complementary overseas-funded activities, although most will be UK-based.

With £15 million from the science budget and £20 million for commercialisation of the research, announced in last month's Department of Trade and Industry white paper, Opportunity for all in a World of Change, the EPSRC is looking to attract £30 million more from industry for this core programme. The EPSRC was also granted an extra £9 million to buy high-performance computing hardware, which is able to perform 1015 calculations a second (ten times more powerful than current hardware), to encourage greater collaboration between computer specialists and scientists and engineers for simulation and modelling.

The government pledged £74 million to the research councils to develop their own grid projects. The EPSRC expects to work on areas such as informatics - the processing of data from experiments in fields such as chemistry, materials or food science - and multiple decision design, enabling people around the world to work on a single project, sharing data and images so that decisions can be made in real time. It will be putting out a call for proposals in the next few weeks.

Members of the particle physics and astronomy communities are experienced in creating high-end information technology applications able to handle large amounts of data for their research. After all, this community produced the worldwide web. Research into the next generation of software is already under way, so the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council was awarded a relatively large amount - £26 million - for its e-science budget. There are three main projects, but the PPARC is welcoming proposals for grid technologies that fall outside these proposals. The UK Particle Physics Grid will handle the huge amounts of data spewed out by the forthcoming Large Hadron Collider at Cern, as well as other accelerators. A proposed Astro-Grid will provide astronomers with a virtual observatory, giving them access to astronomical data from around the world. Finally, a grid for solar terrestrial physics will try to link up models of different layers of the atmosphere, possibly in conjunction with similar Natural Environment Research Council projects.

The Medical Research Council is combining its £8 million with another £8 million from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council to focus on data management tools for health informatics and bioinformatics. Projects will concentrate on tissue engineering, imaging technologies, microarrays and IT applications.

The NERC will hold an open meeting at the end of March to hear from its research community on which areas it should concentrate its £7 million.

The Central Laboratory of the Research Councils will use its £5 million on projects to upgrade its facilities (synchrotrons, satellites, telescopes and lasers), making them griddable and providing access to data storage and relevant computational and network resources.

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