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Making the Web Work Even Better for Energy R&D

by Peter Lincoln on Thu, 8 Oct, 2009

The Office of Scientific and Technical Information (OSTI) maintains several collections of scientific and technical information (STI) that can be employed to help achieve the President's national objectives for the U.S. Department of Energy.

OSTI's databases are important resources for scientists and engineers working to strengthen America's role as the world leader in science and technology, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, promote energy security and enhance nuclear security. OSTI has shown that the web can work better for science and research and development - and OSTI believes that making the web work still better for science and R&D will help overcome critical roadblocks to widespread, cost-effective deployment of emerging or existing but under-deployed energy technologies.

OSTI's Progress to Date

Established in 1947, the DOE Office of Scientific and Technical Information (http://www.osti.gov/) fulfills the agency's responsibilities to collect, preserve and disseminate scientific and technical information (STI) emanating from DOE R&D activities. OSTI's mission is to advance science and sustain creativity by making R&D findings available to DOE and other researchers and the public. In the words of Section 982 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, "The Secretary, through the Office of Scientific and Technical Information, shall maintain with the Department publicly available collections of scientific and technical information resulting from research, development, demonstration, and commercial applications supported by the Department."

OSTI is founded on the principle that science progresses only if knowledge is shared, and the OSTI Corollary - accelerating the sharing of knowledge accelerates the advancement of science - takes OSTI's founding principle to the next level. (See OSTI's FY 2009-2013 Strategic Plan, http://www.osti.gov/StrategicPlan09.pdf.)

OSTI already has made important progress. It has championed an aggressive effort on a series of fronts to make authoritative science information more efficiently available to researchers and the public alike. It has played a leading role in developing and adopting cutting-edge web tools such as relevancy ranking, technology that allows search results to be returned in a ranked order relevant to the search query, and federated search (http://www.osti.gov/home/fedsearch.html), the simultaneous search of multiple web databases in real time via a single search query, to enhance the diffusion of scientific knowledge.

Based on the progress already made, OSTI today maintains three major collections of scientific and technical information - "The Big 3 Search Engines Just for Science":

OSTI's DOE collection, Science Accelerator (http://www.scienceaccelerator.gov/), includes the results of DOE's research and development (R&D) projects and programs, descriptions of R&D projects under way or recently completed, major R&D accomplishments, and recent research of interest to DOE.

OSTI also conceived and hosts Science.gov (http://www.science.gov/ver5.html), a gateway to U.S. government information and research results. Science.gov was launched in December 2002, and is an interagency initiative of 18 U.S. government science organizations with 14 federal agencies that contribute content to serve the information needs of the science-attentive citizen, including science professionals, students and teachers, and the business community. Science.gov now is in its fifth generation and offers access to more than 40 databases and 200 million pages of science information via a single query.

OSTI also hosts WorldWideScience.org (http://worldwidescience.org/), a global science gateway that was launched in June 2007 and today searches 375 million pages of science and technology research and development results offered by 61 nations.

Bench-to-Bench Coordination

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu has noted that science, discovery and innovation are at the core of DOE's strategic efforts to produce clear, secure energy, lower greenhouse gas emissions, promote economic prosperity and enhance national security.

OSTI has a couple of recommendations for how the web could be made to work better for science and R&D and thereby help DOE pursue its major priorities and goals.

Along with other federal science agencies that are pioneers in this area, OSTI believes, as former Director of the National Institutes of Health Dr. Elias Zerhouni has put it, that "the real value [in the explosive growth of scientific knowledge] is in the full connectivity of all available electronic sources of scientific information and their efficient exploitation with the powerful emerging software tools of specialized search engines and not in just posting articles for passive display."

First, OSTI proposes an initiative to improve "bench-to-bench" coordination through a technology that links researchers across the basic-applied divide. In many cases, the researchers so linked will not be members of the same technical community. The technology is designed to distinguish basic from applied research, while at the same time recognizing likely problem solving relationships across the divide. This is a clustering technology developed to help match basic solutions to applied needs.

OSTI maintains a database of R&D results, the Information Bridge (http://www.osti.gov/bridge/), and another database of basic and applied research contracts and grants, DOE R&D Project Summaries (http://www.osti.gov/rdprojects/) - but these two databases currently do not talk to one another. OSTI proposes to integrate the two databases so that one can find the R&D results stemming from any project, find the description of a project from its R&D results, and identify the researchers. (This bench-to-bench proposal was first presented in an earlier OSTI blog: http://www.osti.gov/ostiblog/home/entry/bench_to_bench_coordination_using.)

This will enable DOE program managers, senior DOE, OMB and OSTP officials, Congress, the scientific community and American taxpayers to monitor and assess DOE research investments better by making it much easier to access information on research contract and grant awards, progress and results.
It also will improve prospects for bench-to-bench coordination among DOE researchers working on crosscutting and interdisciplinary technical challenges and breakthroughs, in basic research and across the R&D continuum to applied research and technology development.

Integrating these databases would have immediate practical benefits for bench scientists and engineers (and DOE program managers) already pursuing research at the growing number of DOE Office of Science research centers established to promote interdisciplinary work on grand challenges of national import. These include the five DOE Nanoscale Science Research Centers (funded through the Basic Energy Sciences (BES) program), the three DOE Bioenergy Research Centers (Biological and Environmental Research) and the recently awarded 46 DOE Office of Science Energy Frontier Research Centers (BES).

X Portals

OSTI also is recommending the development of a new kind of web portal that promotes connectivity of all electronic resources. We call this the X-Portal.
The X-Portal is a Web-based technology designed to provide comprehensive contact within a specified technology community (called "community X"). An X-Portal provides comprehensive coverage for a specific science or technology community, where X refers to that community. In other words, an X-Portal for biofuels is a comprehensive biofuels portal. X = Neutron Science gives a comprehensive neutron science portal, and so on. There can be as many X-Portals as there are communities, but each has a similar design.

The need for X-Portals is based on the fact that today's search engines and portals typically provide less than 5% coverage of any given science community. Today's Web portals and search engines, while revolutionary, are crude, inefficient and far from comprehensive. As a result they do relatively little to overcome the cognitive barrier of findability. One can usually find something relevant, but it is seldom the best thing out there. Lack of efficient communication is a major cognitive choke point between developers and users in today's highly distributed energy technology communities. Comprehensive contact should dramatically increase the pace of innovation. (This X-Portal proposal is detailed in a recent OSTI blog: http://www.osti.gov/ostiblog/home/entry/the_x_portal_vision_of.)

DOE's success in achieving the President's objectives and Secretary Chu's priorities and goals will depend in fundamental respects on the quality of information technology and the availability of the latest, most pertinent scientific and technical information on energy-related basic and applied research worldwide.

In this sense, OSTI's proposed bench-to-bench and X Portal initiatives could be vital energy game-changers.

By Walter L Warnick and Peter M. Lincoln

Warnick is Director of OSTI. Lincoln served as Senior Communications Advisor in the DOE Office of Science from 2002 to mid-2009 and is now a Senior Advisor in OSTI.

Other Related Topics: osti, sti

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Peter Lincoln
Senior Advisor, U.S. DOE Office of Scientific and Technical Information