eScience is science that is enhanced by the power of advanced IT
Interview Prof. Wilco Hazeleger
eScience is science that is enhanced by the power of advanced IT
Interview Prof. Wilco Hazeleger

Getting a grip on data

“Science has always combined theory with observation,” says Wilco Hazeleger, CEO of the Netherlands eScience Center. “Our perennial challenge is to find meaning in the data we generate. Over time, observation has been augmented with experimentation, and in the last decades we have turned to computerized simulations to create working models of the world around us: essentially turning theory into computer code.”

“But these simulations, too, are now growing too complex and too large to grasp for the human brain. They often work with data that are harvested by vast numbers of increasingly sensi­tive sensors. The scale of this new research environment defies the orderly traditional model of scientific research. We must develop increasingly complex tools whilst using them to uncover patterns in these vast, opaque seas of data. This way of working, step by step, using mathematical modeling and visualisation, is what we call eScience: science that is enhanced by the power of advanced IT.”

In all fields of research, new techniques and practices are being developed to deal with this challenge. But Hazeleger, a climate scientist by training, warns that results must be tested in the real world. “The truth is out there. That’s why every new computer model of weather forecasting is tested extensively by running it against past weather data. And, likewise, new IT tools are irrelevant if they don’t meet the needs of the researchers in different scientific disciplines.”

Netherlands eScience Center

The task of the Netherlands eScience Center is to further this new way of doing research. Hazeleger: “We have three areas of expertise: efficient computing, optimal data handling and Big Data analytics. I’d like to give more emphasis to analytics, because it directly addresses the meaning of the data. In this way we get closer to the principal investigators of our projects.”

The main asset of NLeSC for doing so are its eScience Engineers. These IT experts work part of the week at the location of our scientific collaborators in academia and industry. “They are good communicators,” Hazeleger emphasizes. “Sharing knowledge is a primary competence for them. Back at the eScience Center, they stimulate and learn from each other.”

Hazeleger notices with satisfaction that university researchers who have worked with NLeSC during its first three years of operation, are now choosing to use its services in their next projects. This includes having project members work part of the time at the eScience Center. “We want to make this place a platform for expertise, a meeting-place for the increasing number of domain-based eScience projects in the Netherlands.”

Much of the work at NLeSC is to improve the IT tools but also to make them suitable for other fields of study. Hazeleger: “This is my other aim: to be overarching in supporting eScience. Software must be made more generic, so science can grow faster and wider.” Examples of this cross-fertilisation are already visible: from genetics to food research, and from astronomy to climate science. Finally, eScience tools must grow into a basic method of scientific research. Hazeleger: “The Netherlands has access to a strong e-infrastructure through SURF. eScience is a fundamental part of that.”

Going beyond

eScience is challenging the most established practices of research. Hazeleger: “In meteorology, the standards of measuring were created in the 19th century. But nowadays, small numbers of thermometers set at 1.5 meters above fields of grass are a poor source for weather forecasts in cities. Why not use the temperature sensors in road surfaces, or in cars? And if you want to warn of fog, Twitter may be a useful source.”

Harnessing all such disparate sources to get a good weather forecast, and doing so in just a few hours, is a good example of the challenges and rewards that eScience holds out for us. Hazeleger: “Astronomers are used to reaching for the stars, but in other fields of study people tend to stick to their ‘tried and true’ methods. Our ambition is to help them go beyond. That’s why we invite researchers over to discuss their projects as early as possible. Don’t look at limitations, but just think of what could happen once we clear those out of the way.”

Wilco Hazeleger studied meteorology at Wageningen University and Reading University and received his PhD from Utrecht University, before researching decadal climate variability (forecasting El Niño) at Columbia University in New York. At KNMI (Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute) he led several divisions in the field of climate studies and provided climate scenarios for the government panels on adapting to climate change, such as flood defense. Concurrently he initiated and directed the EC-Earth Project, bringing together twenty-two universities, knowledge institutes and high performance computing centers from eleven European countries into a consortium that develops an Earth System model.

Text: Aad van de Wijngaart
Photography: Martijn van Dam

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