Nordic eScience in focus in Helsinki

On 29-30 September, some 150 representatives of the research community, authorities, trade and industry came together at the eScience conference in Helsinki to discuss the opportunities that are opening up thanks to new electronic research methods and tools. The conference presented a wide range of perspectives.
Nordic eScience in focus in Helsinki

Tapio Kosunen, eScience-konf.State Secretary at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture Tapio Kosunen opened the conference, encouraging participants to use eScience as a door opener and to translate words into action by cooperating at the Nordic level. He cited the Top-level Research Initiative as an excellent example of precisely this. “It represents a promising path for the eScience globalisation initiative to follow,” he said.

The Nordic countries have invested substantially in eScience and eInfrastructure, even in financially difficult times. In his remarks, Secretary General of the Nordic Council of Ministers Halldór Ásgrímsson pointed out that even though ICT users in the Nordic countries are among the world’s most advanced, it is critical that we utilise our knowledge more effectively to ensure that our research activities and investments have a greater impact, for example on innovation in the health care sector. “Nordic experience and initiatives can serve as important input for developing broader European strategies in the field of eScience,” he stated.

Data sharing or data flirting?

Professor Carole Goble of the University of Manchester in the UK was the keynote speaker and inspired many participants with her talk on how eScience is influencing the way in which we conduct research. Professor Goble, who has been involved in the eScience project myGrid for a decade, presented the relationship between the research process, the social and the technical as a set of gear wheels. “We have a new generation of social people and we have a new generation of tools. The social is more important than the technical, but the technical can revolutionise the social,” she said. Professor Goble, and many other speakers, touched on the dilemma involved in the need to share data while at the same time maintaining a competitive edge. Professor Goble introduced the term “data flirting” as an alternative to “data sharing”, precisely because there is no system that rewards sharing. “Reuse is of key importance in eScience. We are asking people to play nice and Sverker Holmgren presenterer på eScience-konf.share, but there are no social models for this.”

Programme Director of the Nordic eScience globalisation initiative at NordForsk Sverker Holmgren concluded the plenary session on the first day by discussing the background for the initiative. “We have much to accomplish,” he said. “By building on the existing joint initiatives, making the most of the value they represent, we can create something new together.”

Several of the challenges facing the field of eScience are linked to security, legal regulations, personally identifiable data in the public sector, how to govern, how to build a better trust level, and how to remain in control of systems and data. “eScience, Opportunities and Challenges” and “Green ICT” were the two main themes for the 16 parallel sessions held on the first day of the conference.

Fundamental eInfrastructure

eInfrastructure was a recurring theme in many of the presentations, and the new Nordic eInfrastructure Cooperation (NeIC) is of particular relevance in this context. The Nordic Data Grid Facility is being developed into a broader cooperation organisation for eInfrastructure for data storage and computing, which has been dubbed the Nordic eInfrastructure Cooperation (NeIC). This same day in Vilnius, the NordForsk Board decided that NeIC will be hosted by NordForsk, thereby bringing together eInfrastructure and eScience within the NordForsk framework.

A Nordic or European research area cannot exist without eInfrastructure, emphasised Gudmund Høst, Special Adviser at the Research Council of Norway. This sentiment was echoed by Director of ISC4.EU Frans de Brüine and several other speakers. “Without European eInfrastructure, there can be no world-class eScience,” asserted de Brüine, “and there will be less innovation and less economic growth.”

eScience salMany speakers also discussed the importance of taking the correct approach. A combination of a top-down and a bottom-up approach would be optimal, with clearly-articulated needs and initiatives on the part of the research community on the one hand, and the political willingness to give it high priority on the other.

During discussions on green ICT it was pointed out that large-scale data centres serving the entire world, such as Google’s and Facebook’s centres, consume tremendous amounts of energy both for cooling and for general operations. There are major advantages to placing such energy-intensive data centres in geographic areas with colder climates, such as the Nordic countries, which can also offer locally-generated energy. Professor Lennart Johnsson of the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden addressed these data centres’ current level of energy consumption and posed a rather provocative question: “Is the climate change we are experiencing today a result of the increasing use of data?”

The plenary session on the second and final day of the conference featured presentations by Director Leif Laaksonen of CSC – IT Center for Science, Finland; Director Frans de Bruïne of ISC4.EU; Dr Björn Lundell of the University of Skövde, Sweden; Krista Varantola, Chancellor of the University of Tampere and Chair of the National Advisory Board on Research Ethics, Finland; and Project Coordinator Marie Sandberg of CSC. The conference was concluded with a panel session at which the participants engaged in a productive dialogue summing up the conference’s main themes.

Nordic cooperation in a class of its own

Professor Jan-Eric Litton of Karolinska Institutet in Sweden was one of several speakers who pointed out that the Nordic countries possess cJuni Palmgren, eScience-konf.ertain unique advantages. Professor Litton, who is also director of the Nordic biobank initiative BBMRI Nordic said, “Nordic biobanks are in a class of their own internationally, giving the Nordic countries unique opportunities for collaboration. We can take on the role of leader and trailblazer, while at the same time participating in European projects.” Professor Juni Palmgren of Stockholm University in Sweden concurred, emphasising that the Nordic countries’ biobanks and health registries offer tremendous potential for prevention, early detection and cure.

Frans de Bruïne pointed out the Nordic countries’ significant potential for regional cooperation on eScience and eInfrastructure. Frans de Bruïne, eScience-konf.“Regional cooperation tends to be underdeveloped,” he said. “Cooperation at the Nordic level can supplement cooperation at the European level – it doesn’t have to compete with it. National, regional and European policy in the field must be coordinated. We have to ask ourselves how we can achieve the best results.”

The conference provided many answers to precisely this question. There is a multiplicity of solutions to problems in this complex field, and dialogue and cooperation will play a key role.

The conference was held as a part of the Finnish Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers, and was organised by the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, CSC – IT Center for Science, the Finnish Ministry of Employment and the Economy, the Nordic Council of Ministers, and NordForsk.

The presentations from the conference are available at the conference website

Text: Lisa H. Ekli
Photo: Terje Heiestad

Photo 1: The eScience conference in Helsinki September 29-30 offered interesting presentations and debate. From the left: Frans de Bruïne, Jan-Eric Litton and Pentti Pulkkinen during the panel session.
Photo 2: State Secretary at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture Tapio Kosunen
Photo 3: Programme Director of the Nordic eScience globalisation initiative at NordForsk Sverker Holmgren
Photo 4: Discussion led by Gudmund Høst, Special Adviser at the Research Council of Norway
Photo 5: Professor Juni Palmgren of Stockholm University in Sweden
Photo 6: Frans de Brüine, Director of ISC4.EU