Science and Politics in 20th Century Ireland

The RDS Boyle Medal an an Indicator of Esteem

Roy H W Johnston

Appendix 2: the Knowledge-Base Requirements

It is relatively easy in principle to specify requirements for an Intellectual Resources Knowledge-base. What is needed is a relational database, of which the core is a record of titles and abstracts of all papers published, anywhere in internationally recognised refereed publications, by scientists and technologists working in Ireland.

For this purpose it is appropriate to take the whole of Ireland as being the region for purposes of easy accessibility. This is also appropriate, because the two main Baconian institutions, the RIA and the RDS, were set up for Ireland as a whole, and have always been all-Ireland bodies.

The principle of the 'on-line search-able knowledge-base' already exists as part of the global scientific support-structure. It is however usually on the basis of global information published within discipline. It is, I think, innovatory to attempt to provide an integrated all-discipline knowledge-base giving locally-accessible contact-points into the totality of global scientific knowledge.

For an aspirant user of scientific information like the present writer, who works with small firms which aspire to be in the forefront of modern scientific technology, the problem of dealing with global knowledge-bases in this mode is daunting. It would be preferable to be able to identify, and use in consultancy mode, a locally available specialist, who would be in touch with the global specialist literature and state of the art, via conferences etc.

The Irish 'titles and abstracts' database would need to be supported relationally with files of data on the people concerned, and on their organisational and institutional bases, so that it would be possible to query the database with a logical net, getting answers to questions like 'what has X published recently?', 'has institution Y got an active ergonomics group?', or 'where is there any work going on in the field of cognitive psychology, specific to the problem of human-computer interaction (HCI)?'.

There is no way of answering questions like this currently other than through extensive and time-consuming personal real-presence networking. This concept has existed and has been realisable for over a decade, and the writer has made several attempts to get it implemented. He has even gone to the extent of piloting the relational database software.

These attempts however all ran into the basic problem that such information is often regarded by its possessors as being a sort of trade secret in a competitive situation. The competition is perceived as being inter-institutional, even sometimes between units within an institution; the target of the competition is the funding agencies. The role of the open marketplace, with wares on display in shop window mode, has not yet begun to emerge, to replace the politics of courting the favour of Princes.

Motivation to Supply Input

It is necessary to distinguish the initial motivation, for people to contribute to the knowledge-base, from the ongoing updating procedure.

The initial input could be obtained by offering a fee per unit abstract, and offering to facilitate contributors by supplying via the Web a template, into which they would 'paste' material copied from their CVs (which invariably contain appended lists of published papers), together where possible with the abstracts of their papers, which they are likely to have on record in accessible form for as far back as they have been preparing their papers on a computer, which by now in most cases is well over a decade.

Each set of titles and abstracts would be edited by the author using the template, and returned to the knowledge-base editor by e-mail. The initial input would involve some effort. Subsequent input, in the form of annual updates, would however be relatively easy and could become a routine. The motivation for the update would be the general perception of the knowledge-base as a shop window, and if you are in it you are liable get consultancy, build up international contacts etc. There would be an additional motivation, in that the knowledge-base would enable a national award process to be facilitated, in a form such as that presented by the RDS Boyle Medal award.

People associated with foci of outstanding knowhow, of national and international significance, would thus gain national recognition, and would consciously be in the running for the Boyle award, which has become associated with a cash prize enabling the winner's research team to be enhanced.

Recognition of Outstanding Focal Status

Up to here in this final section we have been talking at the level of a traditional relational database, and the objectives as indicated could be achieved with it, by a skilled user.

Once such a relational database exists, it can however be 'mined', using additional advanced software such as has been applied to the recognition of patterns within traditional databases. It is quite feasible to identify groupings of focussed research papers, related to an integrated research strategy, associated with a cohesive group of workers, with evidence of visionary strategic leadership.

Once such a focus has been identified, it can be abstracted into a component of a hypertext structure, and displayed via an 'Active Research Groups' web-site, accessible to problem-owners seeking expertise. Such a structure is currently being piloted by the Irish Research Scientists Association (IRSA), with the individual scientist's record being the basic unit. The identification of active group contact-points in this context is also on the agenda. The parametric indexing approach, as piloted in the IRSA knowledge-base, lends itself to identification of the active research group closest to a requirements profile. The 'titles and abstracts' database material, if hyper-linked to the 'active research group' record, then constitutes a back-up of the claim of the group to be engaged in world-class research.

The development of a system to enable the recognition process to be formalised and made transparent would involve an iterative process, with a succession of prototypes, interacting with the existing grant-awarding and talent-recognition procedures.

Users of the System

The system would consist of 2 levels: the overall 'title and abstract' query-able database, and the 'active research groups' knowledge-base, which had been abstracted or distilled from the 'title and abstract' database, or developed from the IRSA knowledge-base. (Both of these concepts are in principle executable in the form of an appropriately designed network of institutional World Wide Web sites. However in the general rush into Web accessibility by institutions, the national need for ease of accessibility on a problem or topic basis has been overlooked.)

Both levels of the system would be of use to major high-tech firms considering locating in Ireland, to the State R&D funding agencies, to high-tech firms needing consultancy inputs, and to the talent-spotting jury associated with the Boyle Medal or other national award process.

The system should not be expected to earn revenue sufficient to cover its costs, though a firm wishing to register to make regular use of it could be charged an appropriate fee. It should be part of the State S&T support environment, or it could evolve on the initiative of a non-governmental organisation such as the IRSA or the RDS, if suitably funded from some source.

Such a system if developed in Ireland could form a pilot project for a Europe-wide or global network for eventual development, with relevance to the needs of less-favoured regions. It could therefore be a candidate for funding, under some appropriate European Union or UN development programme.

Note added by the author in 2007: the web-site is a significant step in this direction. Likewise, the web-site version of the annual Irish Scientist yearbook,, also makes a contribution, though it would make sense for the latter to be adapted as a sort of 'shop window' for the former, with some appropriate interface work.

Copyright (c) Roy Johnston. Web version re-edited June 1999; further editing for printed puiblication is not excluded.

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