E-Science, which allows organisations all over the world to collaborate and share their work, is the way ahead for research and education, writes Malcolm Atkinson
In the five years since its inception, the UK's e-Science programme has delivered major changes in the conduct of research. The programme is about collaboration across traditional boundaries and borders supported by the power of sophisticated information technology and advanced distributed computing. It allows multidisciplinary teams from geographically distant organisations to work together - essential to meet today's research challenges. For example, groups in New Zealand and the US can work with a team led by Oxford University to combine their models of the working of the human heart. It also aims to democratise science by making resources - instruments, data sets, computer facilities and tools - available to those who could not afford their own investment but could benefit from a collective one.
The successes of the past five years include the rapid creation of new communities that have agreed how they will work together, pioneer the new technologies and exploit them to deliver new research results.
For example, astronomers have built an international organisation to agree how they share observational data from all kinds of telescopes and sky surveys. Biologists and computer scientists working together in e-Science's myGrid network have built workflows that greatly accelerate life-science research but are affordable in a small laboratory. The environmental science projects - modelling weather, oceans and materials - have demonstrated the research impact arising from convenient mechanisms to run computer models and access data. As a result, they have explored models in ways not previously possible and generated 11 papers for the journal Nature . Particle physicists have built a grid that spans the whole world to provide access to the data from the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator in Geneva. It is already operational round the clock and runs tens of thousands of analyses a day.
The first crucial step was to develop the trust and culture that enables researchers to share resources, information and computing facilities. The next was to build the technical solutions that make it easy to use the shared resources. The third step is to establish common support, or e-infrastructures. This must be shared to amortise the cost of provision over many users; only in this way can we hope to tackle more than a small number of the challenges facing us.
There is still much to be done to deliver the promise of e-Science and to extend its uptake. Each step requires work. More research communities will need to agree their methods of collaboration. The technology requires further development, in particular to make it more usable, versatile and economic. And production support requires more operational experience and extension of arrangements for sharing. It is now time to expand its application across the academic world and to introduce it to students as well as to academics.
The UK e-Science programme has had three critical ingredients: input from the researchers wishing to use e-Science in their disciplines, funded by the research councils; the development of a common infrastructure to support collaborative research, managed by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council; and significant engagement from industry - more than 80 companies, stimulated by the Department of Trade and Industry.
The UK was the first to choose and pioneer this approach - since duplicated in dozens of other countries. And there is a tremendous opportunity to build on the intellectual impetus and established infrastructures that have resulted from the £250 million investment over the past five years.
We must continue to integrate and share so that common infrastructure becomes pervasive and persistent. Researchers throughout academia and industry should adopt this platform and the collaborative opportunities it presents.
But for our efforts to succeed, our society must be prepared. An essential step is embedding e-Science in educational programmes. University staff in earth sciences, life sciences, engineering, economics, sociology and almost all other disciplines should alert their students to the benefits of e-Science. Students should experience the challenges and rewards of interdisciplinary collaboration and geographically distributed projects.
Curriculums should be imaginatively reshaped to incorporate opportunities to experience the tools and methods required for e-Science.
The first steps in co-ordinating educational support are being taken by the International Collaboration to Extend and Advance Grid Education project, funded by the European Commission. It has developed a UK e-Infrastructure; built a community numbering thousands; developed a presence internationally; and supported application research.
The Core Programme, led by Tony Hey, set up 20 e-Science centres, the National e-Science Centre, the National Grid Service (NGS), the Open Middleware Infrastructure Institute (OMII-UK) - which takes software from e-Science projects and makes it robust for wider use - and the e-Science Institute. Investment in e-Science is continuing: the e-Science Institute, OMII-UK and the NGS, as well as many of the e-Science centres, have recently received renewed funding. In addition, the EPSRC has recently awarded funds for three major new e-Science projects. Other research councils are expected to follow suit. The DTI is continuing to fund near-market research using the underlying technology.
However, integration and solidarity will be needed as the UK negotiates, using its established strengths, its position in international agreements on e-Science research, education and innovation.
Malcolm Atkinson is e-Science envoy and director of the e-Science Institute.