Exploring e-Science: An Introduction

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  • Exploring e-Science: An Introduction

    Nicholas W. Jankowski

    Virtual Knowledge Studio for the Humanities and Social Sciences

    Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences

    A number of terms are in vogue that describe the transformation of science through

    utilization of Grid computing, Internet-based instrumentation, and global collabora-

    tion. For the purposes of this special theme section of the Journal of Computer-Medi-

    ated Communication, the term e-science serves as an umbrella for these initiatives.

    This article introduces the contributions to the collection and includes a number of sug-

    gestions for extending the exploratory work performed to date, including attention to

    disciplinary and contextual diversity and the importance of longitudinal research

    designs and historical awareness and of the social shaping of technology as a theoretical

    concept to understanding the changes currently underway in the scientific enterprise.



    Enhanced science, e-science, is one of many terms used to describe recent trans-

    formations in the scientific enterprise.1 The overall assertion behind this and othernomenclature is that the procedures and practices of traditional forms of science inwhich scholars engage during their everyday professional lives are undergoing radical

    change. Some commentators (e.g., Nentwich, 2003) suggest that the very essence ofscience is changing, particularly through employment of electronic networks and

    high-speed computerstwo of the core components of e-science. This transforma-tion is not limited to the natural sciences, where e-science has become, in some

    countries and disciplines, the modus operandi, but is also penetrating the domainsof the social sciences and humanities.

    The 11 articles prepared for this special theme section of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication consider features and concerns related to this transforma-

    tion. Here, in this introduction to the theme section, I provide background to itsdevelopment and share a personal encounter with e-science during a recent researchproject. This background provides the basis for clustering and introducing the con-

    tributions. In the concluding section I suggest several areas where further explorationof e-science initiatives might proceed. But first, I address the most basic of concerns:

    What is e-science?

    Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication

    Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 12 (2007) 549562 2007 International Communication Association 549

  • Terms and Definitions

    A variety of terms are in vogue to describe contemporary changes in the conduct of

    science. The most prevalent include: cyberscience, cyberinfrastructure, and e-science.The first of these terms, cyberscience, is advocated by Nentwich (2003), who has

    authored perhaps the most comprehensive overview of these developments preparedto date, concisely reflected in the subtitle of the volume: Research in the Age of the

    Internet. Nentwichs definition of cyberscience is all-encompassing: all scholarlyand scientific research activities in the virtual space generated by the networked

    computers and by advanced information and communication technologies in gen-eral (2003, p. 22). Tracing the genealogy of the term, Nentwich notes that it seemsto have originated in a journal article by Wouters (1996) and has subsequently

    appeared in various articles and conference panels. Interestingly, the term has notbeen adopted beyond Nentwichs own institutional turf, the Institute of Technology

    Assessment, part of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Still, his systematic investi-gation of how computers and electronic networks are impacting science, particularly

    those facets related to scholarly communication and publishing, is extensive andinsightful.2

    The term cyberinfrastructure is primarily rooted in initiatives based in the UnitedStates and was seriously launched as an idea and source for funding by the National

    Science Foundation (NSF) in 2003 in what has become known as the Atkins Report(2003), entitled Revolutionizing Science and Engineering Through Cyberinfrastruc-ture. This title reflects the promotional and visionary language present throughout

    the document: A new age has dawned (p. 31), The time is ripe (p. 12), a once-in-a-generation opportunity to lead the revolution (p. 32). This language is coupled

    with a proposed annual budget in keeping with such promotional, public relationsstyle: one billion U.S. dollars.

    Basically, cyberinfrastructure refers to an infrastructure of distributed computer,information, and communication technologies. The development is seen as parallel to

    the infrastructures that already permeate modern societies: roads and railways fortransportation, water, gas, and power networks for basic services and resources. Inthe words of the Atkins Report, If infrastructure is required for an industrial economy,

    then. cyberinfrastructure is required for a knowledge economy (Atkins, 2003, p. 5).Not unsurprisingly, the first waves of cyberinfrastructure initiatives were situated

    in the natural and biological sciences, where large volumes of data are involved inresearch endeavors requiring high-speed computer processing: particle physics,

    astronomy, meteorology, and DNA research. These initiatives typically involvedcollaboration with staff at supercomputing research centers.

    The Atkins Report is not, to be sure, itself a scientific document, but a mani-festo. As such, it does not bother with conventional scholarly concerns such as

    qualification, criticism, and evidence. It can beand has beeneasily dismissedon those grounds, but Hine (2003) reminds us that such perfunctory discardingof visionary statements misses opportunity for a potentially valuable scholarly

    550 Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 12 (2007) 549562 2007 International Communication Association

  • enquiry into how these statements are translated into initiatives and, possibly, howsome changes in the scientific enterprise may be impacted by the ideas and funding

    related to such visions.Although it is too early and not the purpose of this introductory text to examine

    in detail the impact of the Atkins Report, it is fair to note that the concerns expressedin the document have found institutional and disciplinary resonance. The NSF hasestablished an Office of Cyberinfrastructure (http://www.nsf.gov/dir/index.jsp?org =

    OCI), suggesting a form of institutionalization. Various disciplines have establishedtheir own committees producing reports and initiatives to investigate ways to take

    advantage consciously of both the features and the funding being made availablefor cyberinfrastructure initiatives.3 These initiatives have not remained restricted to

    the natural and biological sciences, but the humanities and social sciences have alsoentered the arena. The American Council of Learned Societies, for example, issued

    a final draft report (http://www.acls.org/cyberinfrastructure/cyber.htm) on cyberin-frastructures for the humanities and social sciences in July 2006. Other effortsto integrate the social sciences are reflected in the introduction of social network

    analysis as a tool with which to study science communities.4 Further indicators ofinstitutionalization include initiatives to make the general public cyberinfrastruc-

    ture-minded, such as EPIC: Engaging People in Cyberinfrastructure5 and, arguably,many of the initiatives that have introduced Internet research and digital studies into

    university curricula and research programs.6

    The term selected as identifier for this JCMC theme section, e-science, primarily has

    grounding in initiatives emerging from Europe, particularly the United Kingdom. JohnTaylor, then Director General of the Office of Science and Technology in the U.K.,

    coined the term in 1999 at the launch of a major funding program. Like the U.S.cyberinfrastructure initiative, the focus was on the natural and biological sciences, andwas designed to process very large volumes of data with the aid of Grid computing

    networks. Similar euphoric statements about the transformation of the scientific enter-prise as those surrounding cyberinfrastructure discourse marked the launch and sub-

    sequent promotion of e-science.7 A National e-Science Centre (http://www.nesc.ac.uk/nesc/) was established in 2001, which has since become the primary vehicle for coor-

    dinating and allocating funding for e-science projects in the U.K. On the NeSC websitee-science is described and prediction of the future course of science is sketched:

    In the future, e-Science will refer to the large scale science that will increasingly becarried out through distributed global collaborations enabled by the Internet.

    Typically, a feature of such collaborative scientific enterprises is that they willrequire access to very large data collections, very large scale computing resources

    and high performance visualization back to the individual user scientists.

    In this description, as in many others, e-science is closely associated with Grid

    computer network architecture that enables much of the global collaboration con-sidered basic to e-science.8 These features are expected, in turn, to spur development

    of new, specialized Internet-based tools for conducting research.

    Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 12 (2007) 549562 2007 International Communication Association 551

  • One of the developments in the U.K. that differs from the U.S. trajectory isinitiation of a government-sponsored office to stimulate and coordinate e-science

    in the social sciences. Called the National Centre for e-Social Science (http://www.ncess.ac.uk/) and launched in December 2004, it involves a decentralized struc-

    ture of nodes engaging universities across the U.K. Most of the projects funded sofar follow the e-science paradigm of Grid computer architecture, the one exceptionbeing the Oxford University node (http://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/microsites/oess/

    index.cfm), which takes a social-shaping approach. Initially, 11 pilot projectsreceived support to explore the application of Grid technologies in the social sciences

    (Jankowski & Caldas, 2004). Although this U.K. initiative is impressive in scope, theprojects initially funded are predominantly technology oriented, particularly with

    regard to applications of Grid computer architecture. There are other approachesreceiving funding, as noted above, but these are in the minority and mainly relegated

    to a small grants scheme.Regarding e-science overall, efforts are underway to export the British

    approach to the rest of Europe.9 Some EU member states, however, have taken

    a different approach, as in the Netherlands where the term e-science is avoidedand preference given to e-research, which is seen as more reflective of the work

    of both social scientists and scholars in the humanities.10 The article in this issue byWouters and Beaulieu sketches this Dutch approach formally initiated in October

    2006 and called the Virtual Knowledge Studio for the Humanities and Social Sciences(VKS; http://www.virtualknowledgestudio.nl/).

    Much more energy canand, in the coming years, undoubtedly willbeexpended on terminology. For the purposes of this collection, however, I am using

    e-science as the term embracing many of the features commonly associated with howscholarship is conducted in a network environment, utilizing Internet-based toolsand involving collaboration among scholars often separated by large distances on

    a global scale. These features, it is claimed, contribute added value to the scientificenterprise when combined. In list form, these features include:

    l International collaboration among researchers;l Increasing use of high-speed interconnected computers, applying Grid architec-

    ture;l Visualization of data;l Development of Internet-based tools and procedures;l Construction of virtual organizational structures for conducting research;l Electronic distribution and publication of findings.

    The combination of these features differs across disciplines and projects, and

    some scenarios of e-science are, as shown above, futuristic in tone and sense oftechnological inevitability.11 The articles in this collection represent one of the first

    rounds12 of social science reflection on this new vision of science. Not all of thesefeatures, it should be pointed out, are reflected in the articles in this issue; additional

    work, quite obviously, remains to be undertaken.

    552 Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 12 (2007) 549562 2007 International Communication Association

  • Background to Call

    In the initial announcement for this collection I identified four areas as suitable for

    submissions, which reflected a clustering of the above-mentioned features:

    l Managing collaboration and communication among researchers separated by dis-tance;

    l Developing and using Internet-based tools for data collection, analysis, and visu-

    alization of findings;l Archiving and providing access to data;l Publishing and disseminating results.

    Although other topics and divisions are imaginable, these four identify the

    main areas of activity in e-science. In many respects, the transition between tradi-tional scientific endeavors to e-science is underway and often transpiring without

    awareness or particular concern. This was the case with a research project thatI helped coordinate in the period 2003-2006. Since that experience might be

    beneficial in understanding how features of e-science are becoming commonplaceand essentially transparent, I provide a sketch of the Internet & Elections Project

    below.The Internet & Elections Project (http://oase.uci.kun.nl/;jankow/elections/),

    conceived in 2003, was concerned with employment of websites by political actorsduring elections.13 The data collection for this cross-national study took place in2004-2005 and was based upon a common theoretical framework and a shared

    methodological approach in order to examine how online structures for politicalaction were developed by a variety of political actors during the two weeks preceding

    each election. Over 30 researchers collaborated to identify more than 5,000 websitesrelated to elections across Asia, Europe, and North America. Building on the expe-

    rience and methodological procedures and tools developed by WebArchivist (http://webarchivist.org), empirical projects were established around elections held in seven

    Asian countries, the U.S., and in 11 European countries participating in the 2004European Parliament election. Here, three aspects of the research design are pre-sented relevant to e-science: project management, data collection and analysis, and

    publication.Regarding project management, funding was secured to conduct a training

    workshop on the principles, procedures, and tools of the project, intended forresearchers studying elections in Asia and Europe. For team members unable to

    attend the workshop, special meetingsface-to-face and Internet-basedwere orga-nized. The Internet meetings included both synchronous chat sessi...


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