The demand for cyberinfrastructure has come from research communities that recognize the many ways it will allow them to push the scientific envelope. Here are a few of the disciplines and NSF-supported projects in the grassroots drive for cyberinfrastructure.
Geoscience: EarthScope is investigating the evolution of the North American continent and the processescontrolling earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The Geosciences Network (GEON) is integrating data, computation and software to weave together Earth sciences data and disciplines.
Astronomy: The National Virtual Observatory (NVO) is creating standards and high-performance computing tools for astronomical data collections that will make data easier to use, find and join with other data.
Engineering: The shake tables, reaction wall facilities, geotechnical centrifuges, tsunami wave tanks and mobile field equipment of the George E. Brown Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES) are being integrated through the NEESgrid.
Meteorology: The Linked Environments for Atmospheric Discovery (LEAD) project will dramatically improve warnings of severe local weather such as thunderstorms and tornadoes by developing capabilities for on-demand detection, simulation and prediction.
Ecology: The Science Environment for Ecological Knowledge (SEEK) project is a cyberinfrastructure for ecological, environmental and biodiversity research. The proposed National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) will be a continental-scale research instrument for ecological studies.
Phylogeny: The Cyberinfrastructure for Phylogenetic Research (CIPRes) project is developing the technologies to reconstruct the tree of life starting from huge data sets containing hundreds of thousands of genomic sequences.
"[E]nvironments and organizations, enabled by cyberinfrastructure, are increasingly required to address national and global priorities, such as understanding global climate change, protecting our natural environment, applying genomics-proteomics to human health, maintaining national security, mastering the world of nanotechnology, and predicting and protecting against natural and human disasters, as well as to address some of our most fundamental intellectual questions such as the formation of the universe and the fundamental character of matter."
Thatís how the NSF Blue Ribbon Advisory Committee in their report, Revolutionizing Science and Engineering Through Cyberinfrastructure, summarized the scientific need for cyberinfrastructure. The new capabilities are "essential, not optional, to the aspirations of research communities," the report states.
In the very near future, cyberinfrastructure will permit better forecasts of when and where earthquakes are likely to occur and how the ground will shake as a result. Robotic sensors will monitor ecosystem health or track pollutants in urban watersheds. Astronomers will mine for data as often as they peer into the heavens.
For scientists and engineers, according to the report, cyberinfrastructure has the potential to "revolutionize what they can do, how they do it, and who participates." The seeds of this revolution are seen in community-driven efforts, supported by NSF and other agencies, such as the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulations (NEES), the Grid Physics Network (GriPhyN) and the National Virtual Observatory (NVO).
"Extensive grassroots activity by the scientific and engineering research community is creating and using cyberinfrastructure to empower the next wave of discovery," said Dan Atkins of the University of Michigan, chair of the advisory committee. "We're at a threshold where technology allows people, information, computational tools and research instruments to be connected on a global scale."
The report emphasizes the importance of acting quickly and the risks of failing to do so. The risks include lack of coordination, which could leave key data in irreconcilable formats; long-term failures to archive and curate data collected at great expense; and artificial barriers between disciplines built from incompatible tools and structures.
Advances in information technology and the mushrooming of cyberinfrastructure projects for specific fields demonstrate that NSF has a "once-in-a-generation opportunity," according to the committee, to lead the scientific and engineering community in the coordinated development and expansive use of cyberinfrastructure.