The UK’s E-Science Programme has been hailed a success by leading researchers at a BCS Thought Leadership Debate. But they warned that momentum must be maintained to reap the long-term benefits.
E-science refers to the research that is made possible when the resources held on computers at dispersed locations are pooled via high-speed networks. Launched five years ago, the E-Science Programme has funded more than 100 projects to develop e-science techniques for a diverse range of applications.
The programme’s work using grid computing has enabled scientists to do their jobs more quickly and share more data, the debate heard. For example, a computer can now perform a piece of work in four hours that would have formed the subject of a PhD 10 years ago.
E-science has also enabled the combination of technologies with models. In the environmental science area, for example, e-science was used in conjunction with a Met Office model for a global warming project. Starting from different initial conditions, simulations were run several thousand times. The results showed that the range of temperature increases by the end of the century could be significantly greater than earlier predicted.
E-science has also facilitated the validation of scientists’ methods and data. In one project, grid computing enabled a whole community to interrogate oceanography observations. Thanks to so many people looking at the data, the degree of confidence in it was greatly improved.
The BCS debate heard that the programme had also brought together more traditional scientists with computer scientists, providing them with useful networking opportunities.
However, delegates generally felt the programme had not been running for sufficient time. One delegate said the point of the E-Science Programme was to change the way people think by using large computers but he doubted whether the programme had been going long enough to provoke a change in thinking.
Another participant said the programme could take 10 years to feed through into mainstream science and 30 years to reach commerce.
Going forward, the key objective is to sustain the momentum created by the e-science programme, delegates agreed.
Some research councils have already embedded e-science in their methods, while others are only starting to use it. They all need to reach the same stage and continue promoting e-science, the debate heard.
Research councils could also specify that data and code from projects have to be made available when papers are published.
The BCS could also get involved to encourage research councils to offer cross-discipline funding as many projects are crossing boundaries. The society could also help by closing the boundaries between the scientists and computer scientists, for example, by setting up links with other scientific societies, such as chemists, meteorologists or civil engineers. Communication between the groups will be key to further progress, the debate concluded.
What is the E-Science Programme?
E-science refers to the large-scale scientific research that is increasingly being carried out through distributed global collaborations enabled by the internet. These collaborative scientific enterprises typically require access to very large data collections, major computing resources and high-performance visualisation technology.
In November 2000, the government announced funding for the E-Science Programme, with allocations to programmes within each of the UK’s Research Councils. In addition, a core cross-council programme was set up to develop generic IT systems and middleware to enable e-science and form the basis for commercial e-business software.