At the occasion of the joint e-IRG/ESFRI meeting in Amsterdam, The Netherlands on March 11, 2016, we had the opportunity to perform a triple interview with Sverker Holmgren, e-IRG Chair; John Womersley, current ESFRI Chair; and Giorgio Rossi, current vice-president and future president of ESFRI. All three had been present at several adjacent events addressing e-infrastructures and research infrastructures, including the e-IRG Open Workshop, the ESFRI experience workshop and the ESFRI roadmap launch event.
e-IRG's Sverker Holmgren explained what e-infrastructures are about. They are the ICT resources needed to do a lot of modern science, ranging from networking connectivity over distributed computing, data services, data storage, and high-performance computing. e-Infrastructures are a set of services for doing science.
ESFRI's John Womersley expanded on research infrastructures. A research infrastructure is the facility, equipment or capital investment that scientists need to get the best of their research capabilities. ESFRI has a specific responsibility for a coherent strategy-led approach to the large research facilities that require pan-European investment pooling of resources between all of the European countries to deliver excellent science.
ESFRI's Giorgio Rossi told that ESFRI has almost 15 years of history started in 2006 with the first roadmap identifying infrastructures that were considered to be strategic for shaping the European Research Area and organizing advanced research in Europe. Some of these early projects have grown into fully functioning and well-performing research infrastructures. Therefore they have gained experience on all the aspects that are involved in this journey. These aspects are of course scientific and technical, but also financial and organisational. They include the type of governance, the type of legal entity that at some point an infrastructure must take on. These experiences are fed into more recent projects.
This workshop was involving the new projects of the new ESFRI roadmap 2016 as experiences that may lead to a better and higher efficiency move towards implementation by the new projects. This is something that is working quite well within the ESFRI community. There is an exchange of experience; there is mutual help in shaping the overall infrastructure system. The infrastructures interact a lot with each other and this has a lot to do with the e-infrastructure part of them.
With regard to the e-IRG Workshop Sverker Holmgren said that is was focusing on the development of the current status and the future outline of the concept of the e-Infrastructure Commons that is something that the e-IRG has developed during the last years. The idea is to have an integrated and coherent landscape of the e-infrastructure services providing an e-infrastructure to the ESFRI projects but also to other research infrastructures and to research in general in Europe. The workshop as such was one step forward towards the creation of this e-Infrastructure Commons.
John Womersley expanded on the launch of the new update of the ESFRI roadmap, that was presented at the Trippenhuis in Amsterdam on March 10, 2016. This is officially a strategy report on research infrastructures. The roadmap describes 21 new projects needed to maintain the high quality of European research across a very wide area of activities, from particle physics and astronomy to heritage science, energy materials science, environment and life sciences along the way. The roadmap also describes 29 projects which are already under implementation and which come from earlier versions of the ESFRI roadmap. There is a concerted action among European countries to invest in and maintain research capability. This represents a very big investment; it represents a big willingness of the European science community to work together.
ESFRI has been quite rigorous and careful in its prioritization and selection of these new projects, both for their scientific quality, for their project management and their readiness to go into implementation. This is a real measure of quality that ESFRI has been able to select and add new projects to this roadmap and that it has now identified 29 projects that are under implementation and that are delivering excellent science, on course for construction to support European research quality.
This was well received and the science community is very supportive of this effort. It sees ESFRI's roadmap as a real sign of support and quality mark but it has to be emphasized that ESFRI does not provide the money for these projects. It depends upon the support from the member states and the associated countries. One sits around the table within ESFRI to work with the projects and help them secure the support that they need to be constructive and to maintain operations going forward.
The launch of the ESFRI roadmap was a major step forward because it is the first roadmap in six years, the first opportunity for new projects to be selected. There were presentations from the eight new projects which have been added to the roadmap and that got a very positive reception from the science community.
One of the observations in the six years since ESFRI last updated the roadmap is the growing importance of e-infrastructure. These research infrastructures develop, generate and bring together very large amounts of data. In fact, in some of them, in areas like environmental research, the sharing of data is really the value that is added by the infrastructure. It brings together a lot of sensors and national research capability into a single large pool of datasets. Handling that data is increasingly important. Even the big facilities for life sciences and physical sciences are generating as much data now as extreme projects like CERN used to generate 10 years ago. We cannot rely on each project solving these problems for themselves. That would be crazy. They need to connect into a common European approach towards the handling of scientific data which is exactly the issue that the e-Infrastructure Reflection Group has identified in its Science Commons. ESFRI wants to work very closely together to flesh out these ideas and describe how they should best be implemented going forward.
Sverker Holmgren told about the joint meeting between e-IRG and ESFRI which he described as a very fruitful meeting. It was the second joint meeting that was organized in this constellation. e-IRG and ESFRI jointly see that this issue of data and e-infrastructure is now becoming more and more important for research infrastructures and for research in general. This is combined with the effort of providing data and providing open access to these resources. There were very interesting discussions and there was agreement to bring these discussions further on as well as further collaboration between these two groups. e-IRG and ESFRI will see how to develop this in more concrete details during the coming year.
Giorgio Rossi said that one of the duties of ESFRI, after having shaped the roadmap, is to take care of the roadmap, which means to monitor the good development of the projects and to monitor the good performance of the more mature projects that have been labeled as landmarks. Part of this monitoring has to do with the e-infrastructure aspect of them. It will be particularly important for those mature projects performing science that have been called landmarks to be strongly exposed to the other projects, and to integrate or to identify, or sometimes maybe even be leaders in shaping the Commons and the new criteria for developing the data management, the access to the data, possibly by different communities than those that produced the data at the beginning, and therefore to contribute to the full deployment of the science that can be generated at research infrastructures.
John Womersley expanded on some very concrete activities that ESFRI has identified working together. ESFRI has benefited greatly from the involvement of e-IRG members in developing the roadmap and ESFRI wants to continue to involve them in the monitoring of the projects as they move forward. ESFRI is very pleased that e-IRG has invited ESFRI to contribute expertise to the updating of e-IRG's own strategic roadmap. They are also very closely working together to respond to a mandate that ESFRI received from the European Council of Ministers to develop a more coherent approach to member state investment in e-infrastructure. This of course requires substantial spending and that spending needs to be coordinated, so this is a strong basis to work closely together while recognizing that e-IRG and ESFRI come from slightly different perspectives with different competences. ESFRI is a forum that brings together representatives of the ministries of the member states with a mission to coordinate investment in big facilities while e-IRG is looking at the infrastructure serving the whole of science. There is a great deal of overlap but they are bringing a different perspective and through bringing these different perspectives together both organisations can be much more influential and much better informed.
Sverker Holmgren explained that the e-IRG roadmap is now ongoing work. There are some draft versions of parts of the roadmap but e-IRG needs quite a lot more input, especially when it comes to the needs of the users. Part of that of course is to get input from ESFRI research infrastructures for projects to make sure that e-IRG can cater for those needs in this discussion. The timeline here is that e-IRG would like to have this roadmap completed during Spring so that it can be presented during Summer or early Autumn.
Giorgio Rossi said that there has been made another milestone in the journey towards shaping the European Research Area for the important backbone of research infrastructures. ESFRI has refined the methodology for identifying the projects, for identifying in older ones relevant aspects and relational aspects which have a lot to do with the infrastructure part. Now, ESFRI is about to refine the methodology for monitoring and assessing periodically these projects.
ESFRI looks forward to the new additions and updates of the roadmap that follow the new criteria that ESFRI has adopted. Every project has a ten-year time in the ESFRI roadmap. During those ten years it should reach the implementation phase. If it fails, it will have to reformulate itself and maybe apply again but ESFRI will not insist on projects that don't seem to be capable of reaching in due time their usefulness in the European Research Area.
John Womersley said that Europe has extremely good universities and excellent scientists and researchers but they'll only have the impact that we hope on society and our future economic competitiveness if they can get access to really excellent research capability. That depends on research facilities like the ones in the ESFRI roadmap. It also depends on the ability to handle data and have access to computing and networking capabilities like those that the e-IRG are describing. These are not just important for the scientific community. They are really key to our future prosperity and health and well-being as a society.
Sverker Holmgren agreed that this change of the modus operandi of science is quite important to happen because of the capability of ICT resources. It is very natural and maybe also actually needed that this is discussed jointly, for example, by the two organisations.