As modern science grows in complexity and scope, the need for more collaboration between scientists at different institutions, in different areas, and across scientific disciplines becomes increasingly important. The Semantic Web, offers tremendous potential for collaborative and interdisciplinary science. However, to realize this potential, scientists and information technologists must forge new models of cooperation, and new thinking must go into the funding and dissemination of this next generation of scientific tools on the Web.
The above is the gist of the argument I made in a Policy Forum in Science published last year. The article discusses how the network effect created by linking systems together using RDF can be crucial for the sharing of information in scientific repositories, document stores, databases and the scientific computing capabilties of the Grid. In addition, the paper used examples from the National Cancer Institure Ontology which the MIND Lab has helped to port to OWL. This work is described in this paper (PDF Link) , and a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Biomedical Informatics [Hartel et al, accepted August 2004] will provide details on the ontology project.
These papers, as well as a growing number of papers (cf. the University of Manchester GONG project ) detailing the use of OWL in the Gene Ontology and Open Biological Ontologies (see also this Edinburgh site which provides an Owl ontology and working code for mappings), the use of RDF and OWL in biomedical informatics (cf. the Urchin and Urchin-Kowari position papers for this workshop), and a number of projects in the US and the UK for expanding ontologies in other areas of the life sciences (and related fields such as eco-informatics ) indicate the growing interest in e-science uses of current Semantic Web technologies. RDF-schema and OWL, in particular, provide the expressivity needed for biological classification, thesaurus and data integration projects, and the ease with which existing sources can be moved to the Semantic Web makes it an exciting technology for the use of the Life Science community.
One problem with the use of the Web, in general, and Semantic Web, in particular, for life science research, however, is that of access and privacy. The greater sharing of information described in the Science article above would clearly be a boon to interdisciplinary work in science, but it also requires new mechanisms for the protection of information and for greater transparency in information sharing. A recent grant from the NSF PIed by Jim Hendler, Danny Weitzner, and Tim Berners-Lee (approved for funding, Sept 2004), explores how technologies currently being developed within the Semantic Web community could be extended to provide a "Policy aware" infrastructure for the Web, allowing greater control over access to, and the sharing of, Web resources. A forthcoming paper describes this work in more detail, and explains how the HTTP protocol can easily provide the necessary "hooks" for policy-aware processing.
We will argue that although a fully Policy Aware Web infrastructure still requires significant research effort, well beyond the scope of a current Life Science related activity, the ideas therein may be of great use to the community. The use of LSIDs could provide some hooks for "grounding" the sharing of information between data sources and users on the Semantic Web, and an expansion of the current P3P specification to include an OWL ontology for P3P and some specialization thereto for biological and life science use (linked, perhaps, to LSIDs) may be of great use to the life science community, and within the scope of current efforts.Forthcoming paper info: Creating a Policy-Aware Web: Discretionary, Rule-based Access for the World Wide Web, Daniel J. Weitzner, Jim Hendler, Tim Berners-Lee, and Dan Connolly, in Cyber Security and the World Wide Web (working title), B. Thuraisingham and E. Ferrari (eds) - forthcoming.