The net worth of networks
The Scottish Informatics and Computer Science Alliance (SICSA) is helping Scotland punch above its weight in the highly competitive world of computing.…
Article by Peter Barr
The Scottish Informatics and Computer Science Alliance (SICSA) is helping Scotland punch above its weight in the highly competitive world of computing. It is the biggest cluster of computing researchers in Europe, bringing together more than 200 leading academics in 11 universities throughout the country, and its members attract a significant share of the UK’s total ICS research funds. After two years, SICSA is beginning to establish itself as a significant force in international computer science, recruiting world-class researchers at the same time as building strong connections with business at home and abroad. So how will SICSA develop in future – and contribute to the national economy?
SICSA may appear to be a “virtual” community of academic researchers, but the organisation is focused on real-world objectives – not just in terms of technological or economic benefits but also the role of computing in everyday life. Ultimately, SICSA wants breakthrough ideas and products to generate profits for business in Scotland and beyond, but it also wants to make a difference by having an impact on society, culture and health – how people use intelligent devices to interact with each other and access different services.
According to founding director Jon Oberlander, who is now the director of knowledge exchange, SICSA is a “vibrant ecosystem” of people and organisations, set up to take advantage of new opportunities in ICS (informatics and computer science) by leveraging Scotland’s strengths in various disciplines and combining this with world-class international recruits. And within two years, SICSA has not only managed to achieve its initial objectives but has also become a first point of contact for outside investors, including industry giants such as Google, Apple, Lockheed Martin, Amazon, Microsoft and Cisco, who are now beginning to regard SICSA as the “portal” to Scotland’s leading research groups and ICS talent – or what new director Ian Sommerville calls a “one-stop shop” for potential investors and industry partners.
In Sommerville's opinion, the “easy part” (including recruitment) is over – and the real challenge still lies ahead. The two original objectives were to improve the quality of the research done in Scotland and change the research culture from competitive to co-operative. SICSA has made a significant difference already, he says. In the past, researchers tended to collaborate with overseas partners, but SICSA set out to create the circumstances where researchers would find partners closer to home, and Sommerville believes that there is “a greater realisation of the need for openness and understanding” as a result. “The next two years will be more challenging, however,” he adds. “Creating critical mass is vital. Everyone now has to work together to put our ideas in action.”
According to Alan Settery, SICSA’s Business Development Executive, the next step is to make further progress with knowledge exchange and secure funding, by “seamlessly bringing together Scotland’s diverse community” of researchers on collaborative projects. This involves creating “academic champions” to spend more time focused on knowledge exchange, within SICSA and beyond. The recent academic and research appointments from countries all around the world also help to create an “instant international network” of people and activities which enables SICSA to compete at an international level.
Sommerville, who has been involved with SICSA since the outset and was until recently Director of the Graduate Academy, also believes it’s important to expose SICSA's PhD students to international experts, via conferences and master classes, and “get involved in collaborative activities,” as part of the effort to encourage a culture change among academic researchers in general.
Collaboration is the key to the success of any organisation which hopes to make progress in the competitive world of computing. As Oberlander puts it, “if you collaborate more, you also get more funding,” but collaboration also produces results which are more than the sum of their parts. In Scotland's case, this means bringing together a wide range of ICS talent, including world leaders in topics such as information retrieval, networking, linguistics, data modelling, security and machine learning.
Oberlander also says that SICSA has changed his own perceptions about people’s “willingness to co-operate.” Scotland has a long tradition in interdisciplinary research – for example, during the Enlightenment – and many researchers are used to the idea of working together and sharing ideas, and treating each other as equals. Collaboration is becoming “second nature” now, says Oberlander.
PROGRESS SO FAR
SICSA's performance can be measured in a number of ways. Executive Officer Chris Jowett highlights the activities organised so far and identifies three key achievements:
> recruiting more than 30 world-class researchers, from overseas and other parts of the UK, plus over 50 new PhD students
> bringing researchers together via different events (e.g. 26 research theme and 11 knowledge exchange events, involvement in five international conferences, and 53 distinguished visitor seminars in 2009-2010)
> engagement with students, including a PhD conference, organised by the students themselves, five summer schools and six training courses in the last year alone, including workshops on practical topics like “how to write a thesis,” plus an iPhone “boot camp”
Jowett also talks about what he calls “SICSA-flavoured” activities – for example, events which stress collaboration, or PhD students having access to a pool of nationwide supervisors, to supplement the supervision provided in their own institution. He also says that having an exchange with business and society at large is a characteristic which SICSA very actively promotes. “Availability of funding is highly important,” says Jowett, but we also work hard to establish connections and encourage knowledge exchange between industry and academia” – including classes in commercialisation and entrepreneurship for students.
As well as publishing numerous ground-breaking papers, SICSA is proud of the quality of its appointments, as part of its ambition to “increase the net excellence” of the informatics community in Scotland and give its universities an international presence. The new appointments have undoubtedly boosted the “energy” of the research pool, Sommerville says, and the steady stream of distinguished visitors also increases the “internationalisation” of Scotland's research base, with many speakers touring the country rather than simply visiting one institution, as they did in the past.
When it comes to concrete achievements in terms of research, Oberlander focuses on recent developments in machine learning – which has a major impact right across the spectrum of research and is one of the most important growth areas in informatics today. According to Oberlander, some of SICSA’s members are doing important research in the subject, while some are using it to solve real-world problems (e.g. in natural language processing) and others straddle the boundaries between pure research and applications.
The emphasis on machine learning is also reflected in the fact that the 29th International Conference on Machine Learning (ICML) is scheduled to be held in Edinburgh in June 2012, while the Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing (EMNLP) will also be held in the capital city in July 2011 – putting Scotland on the world stage in this key strategic area of science.
Sommerville, who is also Professor of Software Engineering at the University of St Andrews, highlights several other areas where Scotland and SICSA already have an international reputation, including digital tourism (or “smart” tourism), networking and distributed systems, Human–Computer Interaction (HCI), cloud computing and socio-technical systems – an area in which Scotland has more top researchers than the rest of the UK added together. The study of socio-technical systems – or “how the system fits with human, social and organisational activities” – is one of Sommerville's specialist subjects. “We should be looking at the broader environmental issues,” he explains, “not just the technology itself but how to facilitate different systems working together.” Sommerville also describes socio-technical analysis as a “sanity-check” for technology.
Cloud computing is another of Sommerville’s passions, with St Andrews hosting a facility for the rest of the SICSA community – the Co-Laboratory for Cloud Computing. Sommerville says the main benefit of cloud computing is not necessarily financial. “There is a lot of hype about savings in costs,” he explains, “but the savings are much less than some people try to suggest. Cloud computing does enable new business models and new ways of working, but if you have a predictable workload, there isn't so much benefit – unlike an SME trying to cope with elastic demand.”
As well as facilitating world-class research, SICSA is adding momentum to many other international projects – for example, the recent bid for funding from the European Institute of Innovation and Technology's Knowledge and Innovation Community, with support from other national organisations including Scottish Enterprise. Oberlander sees this particular
bid as a perfect example of SICSA's core mission – to exploit its critical mass to secure large-scale funding.
Sommerville highlights another recent initiative where SICSA will collaborate with other researchers to develop “low-carbon computing” technologies, including power usage in data centres, and infrastructure, as well as other major projects in “technology-enhanced tourism” and technology-assisted healthcare.
Ultimately, SICSA will be judged by the quality of its research, its commercial success and contribution to the national economy. “It's easy to attract people to Scotland and persuade them to stay,” says Sommerville. “It's also important to showcase research and facilitate networking among our researchers and strengthen links with business, but the key thing is to develop our research so that Scotland retains and improves its position amongst the world leaders in ICS research.”