Metaphors, Utopia and Reality

The focus of our trip was on exploring changing research practice in a world where we have substantially more data and the emergence of new data-intensive techniques. Fundamentally we knew that  (a) we are in a digital ecosystem and (b) we are in a digital revolution.

The ecosystem point is important because we are two computer scientists who understand that we are witnessing (and participating in)  co-evolution of technology and society, and we were anxious to avoid the technological determinism that computer scientists might sometimes be guilty of. (Well, actually, neither of us were computer scientists originally…!) Actually the co-evolution point was already well understood in most of the groups we visited, and sometimes even the subject of scholarly study.  So we didn’t have trouble making the point, which is at odds with my experiences with some other audiences. There were a couple of examples of thinking along the lines of “high performance computing will solve the challenges of multidisciplinary collaboration” but they were rare and even disputed. Malcolm’s characterisation of Supercomputing as “males displaying to one another” was greeted with recognition and humour.

By the end of the trip we were working with three metaphors and they were great objects for discussion – all three inherently socio-technical. We knew they were working because people would reach for their notepads when we used them, and typically people would start using at least one of them themselves in the discussions:

1. Intellectual Access Ramps.  This is the notion that researchers need to be able to engage incrementally with the tools, methods and practices of data intensive research.  (We used myExperiment as an example.)

2. Telescopes for the Mind. This is the notion of new instruments to reveal things in data that we couldn’t see before. Telescopes changed our understanding of our position in the universe (literally!)

3. Going the Last Mile. This reflects the need to communicate insights so that they have influence – “insights with impact” if you like. Too often we stop at the paper or the screen, but that’s only half the picture.

In our visits we presented examples of these and sought more – we heard of both success and failures, of the importance of the rules of the road and how they need to change with increasingly digital practice. We found excellent examples of good practice. In particular the geo community is mature, inherently international and has well established practice and standards, and perhaps they may provide a beacon for some others. We also noted the leadership role of libraries in the US, effectively reinventing themselves in the digital age, and the maturity of study of coshaping and digital scholarship. The technology backdrop was fascinating, especially for me the new architectures which do the compute alongside the data (like Graywulf) as well as the inevitable cloud computing (quite literally in the case of the meteorologists!)

We had many useful discussions about effective alignment of researchers, research drivers, community, data, resources and innovation in technology and method -  and the consequent need for alignment from funding agencies too. We proposed a hypothesis for discussion: “If we spent 10% less on hardware and put that investment instead into equipping researchers to work more effectively with data then we would make greater progress in our research.”  There was broad agreement and reinforcement for this statement. The two new DataNet projects are particularly significant in terms of investment (5 years, renewable to 10) and a careful alignment which emphasises the research data users rather than the computer science but still understands the role of the computer scientists.

We also met some absolutely amazing scientists, who really brought home Alex Szalay’s quote “a scientist needs to be able to live within the data”. They were inspirational, humbling, and gave the greatest clarity to what data intensive science is all about!

e-Science was kind of a utopian vision and now we know the realities. I don’t think our report will be utopian: it will say there are hard and important decisions to be made in society, that these can be informed by data-intensive research in ways never thought possible before, and to achieve this we need to align our investments in the researcher’s capacity to understand data as well as in the big iron to shovel it. Resources are not infinite.

It’s time to sleep. The last 3.5 weeks have been incredibly intense. They’ve also been incredibly valuable, and I want to thank everyone who made time to meet with us, everyone who’s hosted us in their institutions, cities and homes, and especially Jo Newman and Ruth Lee who ensured the flawless organisation of this epic journey!

Flight BA216, London Heathrow

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