Democratizing learning and research in nanotechnology
In the early 2000s, areas of computational science such as computational chemistry or computational material science already had well-established software packages. However, everyday experimentalists couldn’t use them to guide or explain their experiments, nor could educators use them easily to teach the underlying concepts.
Worryingly, a similar situation was unfolding in nanotechnology. The United States annually invests $1.5 billion in nanotechnology research, which generates lots of software and data. But access remained a stumbling block. Artifacts such as simulation tools and data from research were not accessible to others, and the broader audience could not learn from the research. Questions lingered: How do we create meaningful modeling and simulation tools? How to develop a system to share these tools? How to create user-friendly graphical user interfaces to simplify the use of complex software?
We created nanoHUB as a way to enable access to modeling and simulation and to democratize learning in nanotechnology, and it has become the world’s first end-to-end science and engineering cloud. The online platform converts generated resources into usable, user-friendly apps, and now has a global user base.
How nanoHUB helps
In addition to deploying more than 600 simulation tools that might work as apps, nanoHUB hosts more traditional web content, including courses (110 and counting) and thousands of lectures. Our annual user count has reached more than 1.8 million, spanning 172 countries.
Students preview online courses before sitting down to exercises and modeling simulations. The nanoHUB simulation tools in general emerged from research groups that have pushed the envelope with respect to science and engineering. These novel, research-based tools are now a new publication with a publication date and a digital object identifier (DOI). Reflecting very rapid curriculum innovation, the tools are being adopted for formal classroom use–in a median time of less than six months from publication to first-time classroom use .
Scientists and engineers also rely heavily on nanoHUB for their research, as documented in more than 2,400 publications citations for nanoHUB. Here are two examples: Take the case of an engineer working on nanoelectronic devices, who would like to explore different nanowire shapes, sizes, or strain conditions to obtain a specific design. That researcher could use an advanced nanoHUB simulation tool to perform the work. Or imagine an experimentalist who has built a new device with a new process in a new shape. This scientist could use a nanoHUB tool to model that experimental device and explain its performance or guide the next stage in design.
Lessons from nanoHUB
The time lag between fundamental research software development and practical widespread use is not unique to nanotechnology. Many science and engineering fields could benefit from making their work useful to a much larger user base. App-like interfaces could be usable without reading 200 pages of a manual or taking an intensive training course. Also, these apps can be a gateway to actual published results and make static textbooks interactive.
nanoHUB tools and apps are a new type of publication and are now listed in the Web of Science and Google Scholar. Such recognition is providing academic incentives to publish tools and associated data. While most authors are wary of making their source code open-source, nanoHUB offers them an alternative. It makes tools open-access without requiring authors to give away the source code, which many researchers consider their “crown jewels.”
What the future holds
nanoHUB has shown that it’s possible to make the results of research more accessible to the wider community. I see growth into more areas in nanotechnology and other fields of science. I also envision nanoHUB becoming networked with related data repositories and gateways.
Today most scientific websites really do not link to one another through any form of active data exchange. This differs from the tight integration of other commercial use of the internet, such as linkage of Google Maps query results from related travel sites, such as those for airline travel.
I foresee nanoHUB delivering simulation results and data not only from its own sources but also through referrals from other scientific gateways. Modern commerce has been revolutionized by platforms that provide a two-way marketplace. For example, Amazon, Uber, and Airbnb enable third-party service providers or vendors to offer their products to customers. Similarly, nanoHUB provides simulation tools created by researchers to users in other communities. We need to develop the right incentive and financial models to make nanoHUB a true marketplace.
Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering
College of Engineering, Purdue University