#3 All Hands e-Science meeting at Oxford University

Software as a Service and Software as a science: keynote by Tony Hoare (Microsoft scientist from Cambridge).


The e-Science effort in the UK was to ensure that digital information technologies would have as great an impact on the practice of science as it was having in telecommunications, entertainment, and other aspects of society.

In the human genome project, the people who were funded did not promise to cure a single patient in the first 15 years. The notion was that the overall knowledge gain was so significant that future advances in medical knowledge would ensue. In the same way, the growth of digital tools in science will not necessarily pay-off in the short term, but will build, over time, those new tools that will move science to a new level of capability.

The computer engineers that are engaged in e-science research are not just of service to “real scientists” but are also engaged in a real engineering science. And so Professor Hoare argues that the software products are not just a service to others but also the outcome of a science as “real” as chemistry or physics.

Having browsed the booths and the breakouts, I can say that the entire meeting, 600 people talking and listening for 5 days, rolls on three wheels: high performance computing (and pooled data storage), and the means to distribute this  capability for scientists in multiple locations; science tools and services built on top of this data/computing network; and collaboration practices that promote and manage a range of sharing from data sharing, to shared experiments, to the (open access) publication of results.

The engineering of the HPC infrastructure and the building of the services on top of these are not the real transformative levers of e-science. They mostly add efficiency and distribute resources more widely, so that science does not need to happen in a few concentrated locations (research labs at selected universities and corporate locations). This distribution of effort extends regionally, and eventually, globally. But this capability and the tools that allow its use replace similar tools that scientists at selected universities already use.

The promise of new collaboration practices is where e-science has the potential to transform science in ways that are both intended and unintended. Last evening after dining at “high-table” at Christchurch College, I had a spirited conversation with a fellow on the phenomenon of Wikipedia. He was astonished by the amount of trust that users had in the quality of Wikipedia. I countered that the main value of Wikipedia was its ability to cover an amazing number of topics, far more than any previous encyclopedia. The real value of Wikipedia was its range, I proposed. This value was achieved the only way possible: by reinventing the role of the author/editor. Similarly, e-science will gain its promise only when it reinvents what it means to do science; who can do it; how it’s reviewed; where its published; how it’s used. Very little of this promise will simply grow from improvements in HPC and tools. Much of this will emerge as new users and new collaborative opportunities arise.

Photo Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

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