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  • Time is ripe for eScience

    - Two major Dutch HE organizations, SURF and NWO, join forces to make the Netherlands a leader in eScience (enhanced Science). Amandus Lundqvist and Jos Engelen, the two chairmen, explain to ScienceGuide this collaboration stating that both their organizations are ‘A brands’.

    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."

    Eleven priorities

    Early this year, Engelen and Lundqvist appointed Prof. Jacob de Vlieg as director of the eScience Center. He and his team have identified eleven 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 eHumanities."

    The Center's 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 areas.

    "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 Lundqvist.

    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 them."

    "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 Prez.

    "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 opportunities."