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A Research Strategy for the Century of Information

"This is the Century of Information" - G. Brown, November 2007.

This week, I attended a think-a-thon about a strategy document that the e-Science community in the UK is developing. The goal is to put in place the right mechanisms for ensuring that UK research can make the most of new computing technologies and methods. We have many success stories from the e-science programme; the question is, how do we build on those successes and make the techniques available to everyone?

One point that arose from the workshop is that we need different types of successes. Most of the examples put forward were of good research enabled in a range of domains (GeoSciences, BioScience, Chemistry, Physics, Social Science, etc.). We also found examples of advances in Computer Science itself, rather than just using CS to support other fields; this is essential if we are to engage CS academics.

Beyond academia, we need examples of knowledge transfer to industry. This is where the Grid Computing Now! KTN can help and I will be working on this strategy document in the next couple of weeks to flesh out this story. We also need to engage the public and the schools, so that students coming into university or industry know about the existence of our techniques.

When we looked at the barriers between us and this vision, we were perhaps less imaginative; the usual social and technical issues were listed. I would have liked to seen more about technology transfer in both directions between academia and industry; if nothing else, the academics should be interested in this because it will ensure support for their research from the politicians and funding agencies.

We also had an interesting discussion about Green IT. Although some of us felt very strongly about the need to tackle the problem (Greenhouse gas emissions from university IT is doubling every four years), it became apparent that this won't be seen as a barrier until it impinges on day-to-day behaviour. The research funding structure means that researchers often don't see the full cost of the facilities they use, because they are funded centrally. It's not clear whether it would be practical to change that structure. Perhaps when politicians come under pressure to cut CO2 emissions, perhaps academic computing will seem an easy target, which would make the researchers take notice. Until then, energy efficiency seems more relevant to the infrastructure providers rather than the end users.

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