The computational requirement of cutting-edge science and commerce are increasing rapidly. Meeting this challenge requires the coordinated efforts of computer scientist, software engineers and researchers from many scientific disciplines, who are coming together to create the new multidisciplinary field of e-Science.
As e-Science technologies mature, knowledge of them becomes very beneficial to researchers who will increasingly come to rely upon them in their future work, and universities are now starting to offer courses providing the necessary expertise.
What is e-Science?
Scientists and engineers in many disciplines are facing a data avalanche. The amount of data that they have available over the Internet is increasing exponentially and is rapidly exceeding what they can download to analyse on their desktop computers.
The science that many academic researchers want to do involves the integration and manipulation of data held at a number of locations around the world. The same phenomenon is seen in the commercial sector. For example, pharmaceutical companies want to make available to their staff data from all their research labs worldwide, so that costly experiments are not repeated and each is exploited scientifically to the full.
Another class of researchers wants to perform computations whose scale exceeds - albeit possibly only for short times - the capabilities of their own institutions' resources and so want to make use of computational resources available over the network.
The field of Grid Computing has grown up in the past few years to address the problems of undertaking large calculations on machines distributed across the Internet, and the wider term e-Science is generally taken to encompass Grid Computing and the problem of integrating data from heterogeneous sources across the network.
e-Science in the UK
The UK is a leading force in e-Science internationally, thanks to major funding from the Department of Trade and Industry. Since its launch in 2000, this scheme has funded an e-Science Core Programme and domain-specific initiatives in the areas covered by each of the Research Councils.
The e-Science Core Programme has set up a network of centres in universities around the country to help advance and promote e-Science, with its hub being the National e-Science Centre, which is a collaboration between the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. The Core Programme has also set up a number of specialist centres, with expertise in particular aspects of e-Science, such as the curation of data, the development of middleware underpinning distributed computing, and the operation of networks to support demanding e-Science applications.
UK e-Science Examples
The Research Councils have each launched their own e-Science programme. Projects funded to date cross the whole spectrum of academic research.
For example, the AstroGrid project (www.astrogrid.org) is part of an international initiative to build a global “Virtual Observatory", through which the astronomer can interact with all the world's astronomical archives as if they were a single database sitting on her desktop.
The GridPP project (www.gridpp.ac.uk) is the UK arm of another major international project, to provide the computational power needed to analyse the vast amounts of particle physics data to come from the Large Hadron Collider experiment at CERN.
Amongst the environmental sciences projects is
Climateprediction.Net (www.climateprediction.net), which is harnessing the spare capacity of underused home and business PCs to run complex climate models as screensavers. Another project, GENIE (www.genie.ac.uk), is using Grid computing techniques to couple together existing models for parts of the Earth System - such as the atmosphere, the oceans, and the land surface -to enable climate researchers to simulate the whole system consistently for the first time.
Another major application area for e-Science is healthcare. The eDiaMoND project (www.ediamond.ox.ac.uk) is applying Grid technologies to increase the effectiveness of the NHS Breast Screening Programme by making mammography data more easily available in digital form, while the Axiope project (www.axiope.org), is developing tools to help scientists record details of their experiments in such a way that it can be readily shared with colleagues.
Further details of these, and other e-Science projects in domains as diverse as biology, finance and aerospace engineering, can be found at the Research Council UK e-Science Website: (www.rcuk.ac.uk/escience).
The Problems of e-Science
As the examples above illustrate, one of the defining features of an e-Science project is that it crosses institutional boundaries. To an increasing extent, science is performed by “virtual organisations” – collaborations of researchers from different institutions who came together to solve a particular problem before regrouping in different combinations for their next project.
While a virtual organisation exists, its members must collaborate effectively to get their science done. This requires the sharing of resources – data, software and even the use of computer hardware – between different institutions, often located around the globe. It follows that trust and security are two of the major concerns with e-Science: if I am to allow you to run your program on my computer I have to be confident that you will do so responsibly, and I need a way of ensuring that malicious hacker cannot exploit the facilities that I am willing to extend to my collaborators.
Another pair of key issues is resource discovery and resource management. If my virtual organisation spans the globe, how do I find out which database contains the data I want to analyse or the software needed for my analysis, and how does the virtual organisation balance the load on the computers it manages to ensure that all continue to operate efficiently?
The multidisciplinary nature of e-Science
These issues are common to many scientific disciplines, and to many areas of commercial activity. For every domain to address them independently would duplicate effort wastefully, and result in many poor solutions, as lessons learnt in one field would go unnoticed in every other. It is clear that an effective answer to the challenge of e-Science requires the coordinated efforts of computer scientists, software engineers and experts in the many scientific disciplines whether these problems arise.
Moving into the mainstream e-Science is on a cusp. Until recently it was solely the preserve of the pioneer. Now, as the standards underpinning the effective operation of virtual organisations stabilise, and the software implementing them moves from prototype form to a robust production state, the situation is about to change radically In many areas, e-Science technologies are enabling analyses which were impossible before, and the benefits of their use is becoming clear to all.
As e-Science makes its move into the mainstream, it becomes appropriate to include it in the training curriculum of the coming generation of researchers. Several universities in the UK are developing postgraduate courses in e-Science and Grid Computing; both dedicated degree programmes and single courses offered as part of other degrees. Such courses will benefit a wide range of students, from the scientists who need to understand the computational infrastructure that will underpin their future research, to the computing students wanting to help build ft. They will also prepare students for careers in many areas of academia and industry, so ubiquitous are the problems that e-Science addresses.