A brief thought: What is E-Science?

I’m not sure when I first heard the term “E-Science”, but it wasn’t that long ago. My first impression was that it sounds like one of those words that should be unsucked (i.e., jargon). Now that I know more about it, I’m inclined to think that jargon is in the ear of the beholder. Here’s why:

The most commonly used definition for E-Science is that it is type of scientific research that uses large-scale computing infrastructure to process very large datasets (i.e., “Big Science“, which generates “Big Data“).  However many (most?) often I hear E-Science used as an umbrella term that describes any size of science that involves digital data and/or analysis.  These days, that pretty much covers all science.  I therefore contend that E-Science as a phrase is redundant – it was describing what used to be a subset of science, but is now more correctly describing all science. So why is there an “E” at all?

There are journals, websites, and meetings focused on E-Science (I blogged about attending the Microsoft eScience Workshop just a few months ago). In fact, I’m currently participating in an E-Science Institute, sponsodred by the Association of Research Libraries, the Digital Library Federation, and  DuraSpace.  The goal of the Institute is to provide opportunities for “academic and research libraries to  boost institutional support of e-research and the management and preservation of our scientific and scholarly record.” Libraries are facing the new digital frontier head-on: they are interested in providing services that meet researchers’ needs, and these services have changed dramatically in the last few decades.

The argument for keeping the “E”: Although science researchers have no need for the distinction between Science and E-Science, it is a helpful distinction for groups that provide services to academia at large. Not all disciplines are as digital as the sciences: think about art history, studies of ancient texts, or observations of other cultures. Those groups that provide services or assistance for the broader academic community should, therefore, continue to consider E-Science.


Perhaps one day emails will just be mails… And Banksy will return them. From Flickr by Bruno Girin (More on Banksy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banksy)

Some readings, recommended by the E-Science Institute organizers (and me!):

  • Jim Gray on e-Science, A Transformed Scientific Method. from The Fourth Paradigm: Data-Intensive Scientific Discovery, Tony Hey et al. Microsoft Research, 2009 .  Link
  • E-Science and the Life Cycle of Research, Charles Humphrey.  June, 2008.  Link
  • Special Online Collection: Dealing with Data, Science Magazine, AAAS.  February 11, 2011.  Link (free registration available)
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4 thoughts on “A brief thought: What is E-Science?

  1. Nice post, Carly. It’s great timing – I’m writing a commentary piece for JLSC on this exact topic; what the heck is “e-science” vs “e-research”, and do those terms mean something different from the perspectives of librarians and scientists? (answer: yes) I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one thinking about this kind of thing. I wonder if it has to do with us coming from a science background?

    OSU is doing the E-Science Institute right now, too. I’m looking forward to meeting you next week! Safe travels.

    • Carly Strasser says:

      I just read your comment and I agree that our confusion might be because of that science background. I like clear data points!

  2. The e-science community, as you note, has largely evolved out of the big data community involved in grid enabled and computationally intensive research (mostly in the sciences). Even if you want to keep the “e”, I’ve never understood why it is e-science and not e-research? Not least when we’re talking all research…partly a cultural and international difference also?

  3. Carly, as you note there are two issues here: the “e” and the “science”. Let me provide a view from the other side of the world.

    On the e, I hope that one day we stop talking about e-science in the same way that we no longer talk about e-business. It’s just business. It will be (it is already?) just science.

    On the science, despite claims to the contrary from some, in English the domain of Science is clearly different from Social Science or the Humanities. And yet, many of the techniques used in e-Science are just as relevant to non-Science domains. That’s why Australia talks about e-Research, to make this clear. I wish that English had a word like Wissenschaft (German) or vetenskap (Swedish) that didn’t distinguish, but it doesn’t (Knowledge doesn’t work here). Until then, as long as we talk about e-Science we are implicitly excluding some folks who we should also be serving.

    Just my 2.10041 cents (at today’s exchange rate).

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