ERCIM News No.45 - April 2001 [contents]

Lord Sainsbury of Turville,
UK Minister for Science and Innovation.

From April 2001, the UK will be investing an additional £ 118 Million over three years into e-science, in addition to the funds for upgrading the research network. This is a considerable sum of money – which begs the question “Why?”

A short history lesson brings the first clue. In 1989, a computer system was developed which has fundamentally changed the way business is conducted around the world. Supply chains are now linked electronically; products are designed by international teams on different continents; goods and services are ordered online. This one system, the World Wide Web, has saved companies billions of pounds and has generated billions more in new business. It has also fundamentally altered people’s personal lives, with numbers having internet access at home growing by the day.

So was the World Wide Web created by a businessman spotting this huge potential market opportunity? As I am sure all readers of ERCIM News are well aware, the answer to this is an emphatic “no”. It was created at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory near Geneva, as a way of sharing information between scientists in different parts of the world. But the story does not end there. Seeing the potential of the Web, the creators went around Europe trying to sell the idea to European industry. They were unsuccessful. Then they went to the United States, and were welcomed with open arms.

In the UK we are determined to learn the lessons from the Web – firstly, that scientists with large IT problems develop technologies which are later of great potential industrial benefit, and secondly that European industry has to be involved from the outset in any new major developments. This view is held not only by UK; it is widespread throughout Europe.

It is our belief that a new major development is right now on the horizon. Scientists in a number of disciplines are coming across limits in their ability to process, communicate, store and access exponentially increasing amounts of data. In tackling these problems, there are the beginnings of a new form of information technology – known as the Grid – which has the potential to have as profound an effect on the world, if not more, as the Web.

The Grid concept derives its name from the analogy to a power grid. When you switch on a kettle to make a cup of tea (which we do a lot here in the UK!), you don’t worry about which power station the electricity is coming from, you just plug it in and the electricity arrives. Contrast that with information technology, where you have to specifically search through different databases (which are not compatible with each other), travel to high performance computing facilities, and know exactly where on the system everything is and how best to use it.

With the ever increasing amounts of data being generated by current experiments, scientists are looking towards Grid computing as a solution to several problems. Imagine a world where all databases are interoperable, where huge amounts of data can be transported around the world, where computing power is available “on tap” when it is needed, without the user knowing where any of these resources are but simply paying a service fee. The implications for science are immense. It will give us a potential mechanism to use huge emerging data sources, such as the decoded human genome, in multi-variable analyses with other data elsewhere to develop cures for diseases such as cancer. It will allow international research on very large data sets, such as that from CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, which will open in 2005. And it will greatly enhance the ability to mine data again and again by comparing existing data sets collected for one purpose with new and previously unrelated information, so generating new knowledge.

But now imagine the potential business implications of the same technology. Ubiquitous computing, with information sources available uniformly and processing power provided as a service. Search engines which will not only search but look in several locations for data, then look for available computing power, arrange data processing and communication of the results back to the enquirer. Real linkage of the supply chain and all the IT facilities it contains. If the Grid takes off, it has all the potential to change the world even more than the Web has done in the past decade.

The UK wants to take a leading role in this new revolution, both delivering solutions for our scientists and generating opportunities for our companies. We want to work together with partners across Europe and the world to meet this vision. There is a huge amount of activity in Europe, but it needs some coherence, across countries and disciplines, if we are really to make the vision a reality.

The will is there. The people are there. The opportunity is there. In the UK, the money and national political commitment are there. Other European countries, and the European Commission, are thinking along the same lines. Now is the time for the revolution.