Feature - The long view: A conversation with John Wood

Feature - The long view: A conversation with John Wood

John Wood, speaking at the EGEE 09 conference in Barcelona. Image courtesy EGEE 09

John Wood is one of the key people behind ESFRI (European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures), the organization charged with creating a "roadmap" that identifies the key infrastructure needs of researchers for the next 10- to 20- years. The roughly 44 projects that ESFRI singled out are typically pan-European; they require funding from many countries to build and operate; and require cyberinfrastructure to provide access to their data for their global user communities. The projects cover all types of subject matter, from studies of language use to greenhouse-gas monitoring, and typically require research infrastructures that can handle truly vast amounts of date. (For example, the astronomy project known as the Square Kilometer Array will transport over 5,000 times the total IP traffic of the entire AT&T US backbone.)

At EGEE 09 in Barcelona, Wood highlighted key issues for European research in the future. Former iSGTW editor Danielle Venton later caught up with him to pose a few more questions.

What do you think makes a good ESFRI project?

Wood: First of all - really good leadership. Someone who really believes in the project and who is not only scientifically aware but politically aware. Then, it has to include a number of countries, it must be multi-disciplinary, it must be set up in a way that it can be - as much as possible - accessed by anybody anywhere and finally, they do need a really good e-Infrastructure, otherwise it won't exist.

If you had to do ESFRI all over again, what would you do differently?

Wood: The one thing I would change would be to ensure that all the delegates had a mandate to speak on behalf of their member states. Some of the delegates were not sufficiently mandated to actually exchange views and so initially there was only a small group of the delegates who took part in the discussions.

I think too that the relationship between ESFRI and the Commission needs to be clarified. ESFRI is a member state activity, not a Commission activity. Since everyone was very grateful for support from the Commission, it sometimes became blurred who was running it.

The other thing too, is that it would have been much better to have real buy-in from the Commission's Director General of Research. Over the years they have occasionally come to meetings but having them there all the time would have been much better. So I think, ultimately, it would be to link in to the political and decision making process more actively.

I think it is good that ESFRI was never a decision making body - it is a forum for sharing ideas. People are not necessarily held to those ideas, but we can see if a critical mass develops around a certain activity. I think it has been overdone lately by the "road-map" - although I started it! It was needed, but people seem to think it is the only thing ESFRI does. But other areas like legal, governance, training and e-Infrastructure issues also need to be emphasized.

Personally, I would like to see it concentrate much more now on mobility issues, allowing people from non-participating member states to move about more easily. The commission is considering a "European Research Passport" and I think that will be important for moving our young people around more to generate a flow of ideas.

Image courtesy John Wood

How do you see the relationship between ESFRI projects and e-Infrastructures?

Wood: Initially, of course, ESFRI didn't look at e-Infrastructures, that was looked at by the e-IRG (e-Infrastructure Reflection Group). I think it has taken some time to bring those two together - they have done so now. One of the problems was that people doing research infrastructures were not thinking about e-Infrastructures. Also, during that time the e-IRG chairman changed every six months, so the rapport was not there.

My own personal opinion is that the e-Infrastructure is the essential lifeblood of all infrastructures. Therefore to get a common approach, as much as possible, is vital. But I'm happy to say this has gotten much better.

What is the hardest thing about getting an ESFRI project off the ground?

Wood: The hardest thing, up until now, has been getting the convention signed and the articles of association agreed in the statutes. They tend to be formed as not-for-profit companies in member states and therefore you have to get everyone to understand the legal structure of that and then to get signage. With the advent of ERIC we hopefully have a common structure for that now.

Another hard thing has been to get every government to sign up financially. Because the economic situation changes so quickly, you think you've got the whole thing lined up and then suddenly one country says, "Sorry - I agreed to put money in, but now I can't afford to."

The other difficult thing, too, is that some of these projects are so visionary that other researchers in their member states do not view them as a priority. Convincing the potential users that this is a higher priority than other, smaller projects can be quite difficult too.

Anything else you'd like to tell me?

Wood: A "Chief Scientist for Europe" who actually believes in large infrastructures and their impact on global challenges is something I would really like to see now.

I'm glad to say, President Barroso announced that this would be a new position within the European Commission.

-Danielle Venton, EGEE. This story also appeared on GridCast. More about ESFRI can be seen in the 5 November 2008 issue of iSGTW; more on SKA in the 2 April 2008 issue. If you want to comment on this article, see the iSGTW Forum on Nature Networks.