Building bridges: how do you create an e-Research community?

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about e-Research advocacy and how Swinburne’s small band of e-Science champions could affect they way e-Research projects are funded, resourcedand ultimately embraced by the University. As a little fish in a big pond it’s difficult to know where to start and since e-Research covers a wide range of disciplines there isn’t going to be a one size fits all solution. So I’ve been throwing around a number of ideas; developing an e-Research strategy, defining some sort of governance, establishing targeted working groups to “build bridges" between e-research projects, disciplines and methodologies, and hosting informal workshops and brainstorming sessions motivated by current researcher needs – a grassroots movement if you like. Since the end goal is not always obvious these strategies are difficult to sell. It doesn't help that we lack critical mass.

A part of the problem stems from the broad definition of e-Research, a definition which tries to encapsulate a range of disciplines from the physical, biological and natural sciences to digital humanities and social sciences. In the UK the term e-Science is more widely used, and focussed on STEM activities,  while in the US the term Cyberinfrastructure is favoured.   The term "cyberinfrastructure" was used by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2003 in response to the question: how can NSF, as the nation's premier agency funding basic research, remove existing barriers to the rapid evolution of high performance computing, making it truly usable by all the nation's scientists, engineers, scholars, and citizens?  (Cyberinfrastructure Framework for the 21st Century Science and Engineering, was one of the many subsequent vision documents). Many reasearchers, particularly particle and astophysicisist don’t even think of their projects falling under the ‘e-Research banner’. High performance computing, advanced visualisation, and data mining are the norm. Yet e-Research in humanities seems to be fundamentally different. So how do you make sure the social sciences aren't left out?

Some of Swinburne’s innovative e-Research projects include cloud based laboratories for building model universes (Theoretical AstrophysicalObservatory),  grid computing in social sciences,  astronomy and biomedical 3D and interactive visualization, designing intelligent transport systems, high performance computing (we have our own supercomputer!), policy and “grey literature” databases (Australia Policy Online) and combined research and clinical e-Therapy projects (Mental Health Online). As a technology focused university we do appear to strongly embrace e-Research projects, many of which have become high-profile assets, perhaps without realising it. Despite this there a lack of communication - at all levels – and sharing of ideas and expertise. This is a problem faced by many universities. Personally, I’m a fan of the model adopted by University of California; the recently established Berkeley Institute for Data Science, and the University of Melbourne Research Bazaar (more than just a blog) that was set up mid-2013. I’ll tell you more about these another time.

But I am excited to tell you that in few weeks we will be having our own (and I believe the first) e-Research Symposium; a one day showcase of our most interesting and sucessful projects followed by brainstorming sessions to start "building bridges" and to figure out the direction Swinburne should take in this space. We’ve an overwhelmingly posititve response so far with 80 registered participants in the first four days, the majority of which sighned up within the first five hours.

I think this is a pretty good start, don’t you think?

I’ll let you know it goes.