Conference Report
Cyberinfrastructure and the Social Sciences
Fran Berman, SDSC
Ruzena Bajcsy, UC Berkeley
CTWatch Quarterly
August 2005

At first blush, the technical issues involved with designing, implementing, and deploying Cyberinfrastructure seem to present the greatest challenges. Integrating diverse resources to deliver aggregate performance, engineering the system to provide both usability and reliability, developing and building adequate user environments to monitor and debug complex applications enabled by Cyberinfrastructure, ensuring the security of Cyberinfrastructure resources, etc. are all immensely difficult technical challenges and all are more or less still works-in-progress.

After ten years of experience since the I-Way Grid experiment at SC’95, and many more years of experience with team-oriented distributed projects and experiences such as the Grand Challenge program from the 1980s, NSF’s large-scale ITR projects, TeraGrid, etc. it is clear that some of the most challenging problems in designing, developing, deploying, and using Cyberinfrastructure arise from the social dynamics of making large-scale, coordinated projects and infrastructure work. From an increasingly substantive experience base with such projects, it is clear that the cultural, organizational, and policy dynamics, as well as the social impact of Cyberinfrastructure will be critical to its success.

The expansion of the focus on social scientists as end users of Cyberinfrastructure to critical designers and process builders of Cyberinfrastructure motivated the organization of the NSF SBE-CISE Workshop on Cyberinfrastructure and the Social Sciences1 in March at Airlie House in Warrenton, Virginia. Targeted to a broad spectrum of decision makers and innovative thinkers in the Social Sciences and Computer Sciences, and organized by a multi-disciplinary team of SBE and CISE researchers including a Political Scientist (Henry Brady, UC Berkeley), an Economist (John Haltiwanger, University of Maryland), and two Computer Scientists (Ruzena Bajcsy from UC Berkeley and Fran Berman from SDSC and UC San Diego), the workshop strived to provide substantive, useful and usable feedback to NSF on programs and activities for which the SBE and CISE communities could partner together to build, deploy, and use Cyberinfrastructure. The Airlie workshop focused on two goals:

  1. To develop a Final Report that lays out a forward path of Cyberinfrastructure research, experimentation, and infrastructure for the SBE and CISE community and provide a framework for projects and efforts in this integrated area.
  2. To provide a venue for community building within the SBE and CISE communities, and in particular, a venue for a multi-disciplinary synergistic community that leverages the perspectives and research of both SBE and CISE constituencies.

Workshop Framework

The Workshop combined distinguished plenary talks from Dr. Arden Bement, Director of the NSF, Dr. Dan Atkins, Chair of the Blue Ribbon Panel on Cyberinfrastructure, and Dr. Nikolaos Kastrinos, Office of Directorate General Research of the European Union Commission, as well as a set of intensive break-outs and report-outs. The group interactions were designed to focus discussions so that the participants could start developing a roadmap for how both social scientists and computer scientists can better impact the design, organization, processes, policies, and impacts of Cyberinfrastructure, as well as how they can improve the relevancy and usefulness of Cyberinfrastructure for the social, behavioral, and economic sciences. Breakout sections focused on the following areas:

The almost 100 participants (including roughly 20 participants from the National Science Foundation) felt that the Airlie Workshop constituted the beginning for a critical and important community of Cyberinfrastructure designers, builders and users. The workshop Final Report2 provides a comprehensive summary of the issues and discussions at the workshop. Arden Bement commented “This SBE-CISE workshop broke new ground by enabling these communities to explore key issues and opportunities for collaboration in designing, developing and delivering better information infrastructure. The final report leverages the immense expertise of NSF communities to develop useful and usable Cyberinfrastructure to support breakthrough science and engineering research and education for the 21st century.”

The report is expected to become a key document in the development of NSF’s Cyberinfrastructure plan and serves to outline a broad agenda of participatory research, infrastructure, and educational opportunities for both Social Scientists and Computer Scientists.

Workshop Findings

Participants in the workshop explored the concepts of Social Science-enabled Cyberinfrastructure and Cyberinfrastructure-enabled Social Science. Participants also identified key challenges in the social impacts and implications of Cyberinfrastructure. The Final Report Executive Summary describes the following conclusions drawn from workshop discussions:

  1. “Cyberinfrastructure can make it possible for the SBE sciences to make a giant step-forward — Cyberinfrastructure can help the social and behavioral sciences by enabling the development of more realistic models of complex social phenomena, the production and analysis of larger datasets (such as surveys, censuses, textual corpora, videotapes, cognitive neuroimaging records, and administrative data) that more completely record human behavior, the integration and coordination of disparate datasets to enable deeper investigation, and the collection of better data through experiments and simulations on the Internet.

    … Cyberinfrastructure provides the ability to do these things at unprecedented scale and intensity … just at a time when social and behavioral scientists face the possibility of becoming overwhelmed by the massive amount of data available and the challenges of comprehending and safeguarding it.

  2. “SBE scientists can help CISE researchers design a functional and effective Cyberinfrastructure which achieves its full potential — Cyberinfrastructure requires unprecedented organization, coordination, and integration and will have immense impact on the social dynamics, technological resources, and communication and interaction paradigms for both science and society …. SBE leaders are needed to help guide the design, development, and deployment of a functional Cyberinfrastructure …
  3. “Together, SBE and CISE researchers can assess the impacts of Cyberinfrastructure on society and find ways to maximize the benefits of Cyberinfrastructure … It is already an accepted part of the mission of the SBE sciences to assess societal impact, but it is particularly important to assess the impacts of Cyberinfrastructure for engineering and the sciences. Social and behavioral scientists can be especially helpful in understanding changes in social interactions, changes in jobs and income, the impact of policy, and new conceptions of privacy and trust in the networked world. …”

The Final Report Executive Summary continues

“… true collaborative research is needed between SBE and CISE researchers. In order to achieve this, both intellectual and material interfaces must be shared. For example, it is not sufficient for SBE researchers to be told about Cyberinfrastructure possibilities if they do not possess the technical expertise to understand their ramifications. Many SBE researchers lack the technical know-how to participate without significant support from Cyberinfrastructure experts. Similarly, CISE researchers often lack sufficient domain-specific knowledge to appreciate the complexity of the technical problems that truly need to be solved by SBE researchers. The level of knowledge required by both sides will require true collaboration between the two research communities to make a joint research initiative successful. SBE researchers must become familiar with emerging Cyberinfrastructure technologies and CISE researchers must learn about the social sciences.”

One of the concrete outcomes of a successful integrative workshop is the number of collaborations generated out of issues exposed within workshop discussions and collaborations begun at the workshop. Based on this criteria, the NSF SBE-CISE Workshop on Cyberinfrastructure and the Social Sciences was a resounding success. More information on the workshop can be found at .


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