Amandus Lundqvist (Chairman of SURF, the Dutch IT and
communications network) and Jos
Engelen (Chairman of NWO, Netherlands Organization for
Scientific Research) are seated at the big conference table in the
Netherlands eScience Center at the Amsterdam Science Park. Both are
bursting with enthusiasm and have a lot to say
about the way their organizations have set up the Center together.
"The time was ripe - and perhaps more than ripe," says Lundqvist.
"The idea behind eScience is so simple and potentially so valuable
that I sometimes wonder why we didn't start much earlier."
Engelen explains that the mission of NWO and SURF in the eScience
Center is to bring people and facilities together to create
something new. "When they hear the term 'eScience', a lot of people
immediately think of 'electronic' in the service of 'science'," he
says. "But the 'e' in fact stands for 'enhanced', for enhancement
and innovation in science.
The Center aims to enhance scientific and scholarly endeavor,
for example by deploying advanced 'Big Data' analysis tools and ICT
methods from other scientific disciplines for research purposes. It
will also help researchers use the various tools in an innovative
and creative manner. So eScience also encourages
interdisciplinarity, making it logical for SURF and NWO to tackle
this venture together."
The linking pin
Lundqvist and Engelen both emphasize the importance of the
recommendations of the ICT Regie organization in setting up the
eScience Center. "Those recommendations were based on an overall
assessment of the e-infrastructure and the development of ICT for
science and scholarship," says Engelen, "and they were an enormous
incentive for us. We realized that we not only needed to combine
innovative research projects and modern eScience concepts; we also
needed to construct the necessary e-infrastructure. It's much more
effective and efficient to do that as a team."
Lundqvist also mentions a study by the Advisory Council for
Science and Technology Policy (AWT) of the top position of the
Netherlands in the development of "enhanced science," which gave
SURF and NWO an added incentive to "take the crucial steps
necessary to actually do it." It was against the background of
these incentives and the complementary strengths of the two
organizations that NWO and SURF decided to set up the eScience
Center as "the linking pin between actual scientific and scholarly
endeavor and the e-infrastructure." "Both our organizations are 'A
brands'," says Engelen. "We know how to optimize the country's
position and opportunities in fields such as Open Access and now
eScience as well."
Early this year, Engelen and Lundqvist appointed Prof. Jacob de
Vlieg as director of the eScience Center. He and his team have
research fields where they specifically aim to boost the
development of eScience. "That will be easier in some disciplines
than in others," says Lundqvist. "It's not every domain that can
immediately become a leader. Dutch astronomers got involved in
eScience right away, but things are still developing in the
eScience integrators and eScience engineers will take eScience
to the researchers. The engineers are scientists with an advanced
knowledge of ICT who will develop and implement the new
technologies and concepts. They will help other scientists and
scholars to utilize them and to interpret the data that is
generated. The integrators are top researchers who are familiar
with the possibilities opened up by eScience. They will set up new
eScience projects and partnerships within the eleven priority
"That also applies to the connection between basic research and
more applied types of scientific endeavor. In the United States,
for example, eScience is being used to aid the transition from
innovative applications to practical models that can be used by
smart SMEs. We can definitely learn from that approach," says
The Netherlands sets an example
Engelen explains that the Netherlands is currently the world
leader in eScience, and SURF and NWO find it essential to maintain
and increase that lead. They see that as a shared responsibility.
"We are the leader thanks to the way knowledge and technology are
so highly developed in this country," says Lundqvist. "Moreover, we
don't form a 'threat' to the other big systems or countries, but we
are still big enough to really play an important role, even for
"In other countries," he goes on, "the development of eScience
is primarily 'tech'-driven. Here it's different: we tackle things
from a science-driven perspective. The idea is to give researchers
optimal facilities for dealing with the necessary ICT and data.
That approach is now attracting attention internationally, for
example in Scandinavia, where they are extremely interested.
Interest in Asia is lagging somewhat behind.
That's because although science is flourishing in Asia, they
don't have the capacity there to connect up infrastructures,
content, and a solid tradition of scientific collaboration. In
Asia, the tendency is still to go for 'really big', 'most
powerful', etc. when it comes to equipment and institutions. But we
believe it's also important to ask yourself what you can do with
that size or power in a much broader context. That's where eScience
comes in," explains Lundqvist.
Saving money through re-use
NWO and SURF believe that their science-driven approach will
allow them to explore new modes of collaboration through eScience,
not only to develop new tools but also to re-use existing ones more
efficiently. That could save the Dutch research sector a lot of
money. "But it will only work if we trust one another," says
Engelen. "If researchers can learn from one another and also learn
how to develop new data utilization and other applications, then it
will definitely boost the 're use' of tools and successful research
strategies. The time really does seem ripe for that!"
Engelen and Lundqvist believe that the biggest opportunities are
in the life sciences, but they also see major opportunities for
advances in the eHumanities, as shown by the fascinating "enhanced
publication" about the sixteenth-century composer Josquin des
"Research on systems biology, for example, requires such deep
processing of data and generates such an incredible quantity of
data," says Engelen, "that you need really smart methods to make
the necessary advances in knowledge and to exploit opportunities
for innovation." A comparable challenge is the way the astronomers
at LOFAR utilize the enormous quantities of data that they gain
from the depths of space. "All of a sudden, one of the most
relevant issues is what questions to ask. You have to match smart
research strategies and how you use your physical data storage
capacities. That's a challenge that cuts right across the
boundaries of the various disciplines."
Key Economic Sectors and SMEs
NWO and SURF foresee a range of significant partners for the
eScience Center and for future development within this area.
"There's already a lot of synergy between the themes that we're
developing and those of the 'Key Economic Sectors' (as designated
by the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation)
and their standard bearers," says Engelen. "That's necessary too,
don't you think?" he asks - kidding Lundqvist, who acts as the
"standard bearer" for the "high tech" Key Economic Sector.
But isn't there a danger that eScience will be viewed as
something that only concerns scientists in university laboratories?
"We can't allow a misunderstanding like that to arise," says
Engelen. "Look at the United States and the way eScience tools are
being used for innovation in the SME sector. We'll need to develop
our relationship with universities of applied sciences ('HBOs') and
their knowledge networks, and with innovative SMEs. We hope that
some of the associate professors who run the HBO knowledge networks
will decide that eScience is something they can really make use of.
And I don't just mean in research for the SME sector but in their
own educational programs. After all, eScience offers so many new