If Europe is to prosper in the global economy, it needs a lot more people like Fabian Suchanek. The 27-year-old German student is full of enthusiasm for his field, computer science.
Training THE next generation
He talks animatedly about his current PhD research, into the database structure of online encyclopedia Wikipedia. And as for computer science itself, it's a field in which “you can be creative. Many other sciences try to understand what exists. In computer science, I am creating a new thing that hasn't been there before.”
Fabian is at the leading edge of a movement to train more computer scientists in Europe. Today, the EU has 3% of its workforce in ICT professions, compared to 4% in the U.S., according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. And demand for programmers, systems analysts and theoreticians is growing world-wide. Without more ICT professionals, says an industry report commissioned by the European Commission last year, the EU could be left “to imitate rather than innovate in a competitive global economy”.
To avoid that fate, several new initiatives have been cropping up around Europe.
Fabian , for instance, is part of a new training programme run jointly by the Saarland University at Saarbrucken and the Max Planck Institute for Informatics. At the University of Southampton in England, the computer science department is trying to tempt young engineers into the field by offering a four-day programme to let them play with supercomputers to design an aircraft and fly it by simulator. In Brussels an industry consortium, the e-Skills Industry Leadership Board (including Cisco Systems, Microsoft, Siemens and Hewlett- Packard) was launched in June to promote training. And in September 2007 the European Commission announced several new projects to coordinate EU and US university programmes – for instance, moving towards a common masters curriculum in computer science, and a bachelors in information management.
Gerhard Weikum is Fabian 's thesis advisor. He says that, whether in Europe or the US, “the supply does not match the demand” for computer scientists – and that matters for the economy and society broadly, because computing now pervades every field imaginable. “Computing and computer modelling is key to many issues – there are embedded systems in cars, trains, airplanes, factories. You do a lot of virtual engineering, simulation and modelling. When we think of global warming, how do we analyse and understand it? By the methodology of computer models and simulations. In the natural sciences, computation is now the third way of doing science: there's experiment, there's theory, and there's computation.”
A look at the Max Planck initiative, at the Saarland University, shows the potential of these new training efforts. It's a graduate programme, taught in English, and structured on the American model of masters and doctoral degrees. Since the programme started in 2000, it has matriculated 199 PhD students. They can work under the tutelage of the Max Planck researchers but get their degrees from the university. The programme broadened a few years ago with the addition of another Max Planck institute, for software systems.
The upshot: the International Max Planck Research School for Computer Science has become a magnet for foreign students – from Algeria, Bulgaria, China, India, and South Korea - who might otherwise have followed a more familiar path for ambitious international students: a move to the US. It has also attracted business interest. In July 2007, Microsoft Research announced it would contribute up to €1 million to help fund exceptional PhD students at the Max Planck Research School for Computer Science. The partnership will enable students to gain valuable experience working in a leading academic institution and be in direct contact with a leading business research organisation, with the aim to help develop some of the world's most talented computing and science researchers of the future. As Gerhard Weikum said, “It is vital for computer science to bridge both the fundamental and applied research, in order to keep pushing the boundaries of science and innovation.”
Each year, for the next three years, five PhD students will get funding from the Microsoft Research PhD Scholarship Programme for their research projects. As part of the programme Microsoft will invite students to attend its annual Research Summer School in the UK, giving them the opportunity to showcase their projects to Microsoft researchers and local academics and to build contacts within the industry. The most promising students will have the possibility of an internship at the Microsoft Research laboratory in Cambridge, UK. In Gerhard Weikum's view, the ideal programme gives its students deep knowledge in their own field – but also the training ‘to look across the fence' at other disciplines. “The goal is to develop people so that they become independent and open-minded scientific researchers.”
He cites Fabian as an example – a student who had “a neat idea, off the beaten path” and earned the freedom to pursue it for his thesis. The problem under study is familiar: when you search online you often get more than you bargained for. If you type into Google the term ‘Max Planck papers' you'll find thousands of references to papers by researchers at the Max Planck Institutes – and they swamp what you really want: archives of the physicist, Max Planck, after whom the institutes are named. If you could qualify your search by specifying the type of data you want – say, biographical archives – you could get the right answer faster. It sounds simple, but the problem lies in defining a knowledge base that makes sense in many different fields – an efficient ‘ontology'.
Fabian 's idea was to look to how people naturally organise data in Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, and in Wordnet, another online resource. From that, he and colleague Gjergji Kasneci have been constructing a knowledge base that can be built into future-generation search engines. The research was presented at an international conference, and it helped get to Cambridge for his Microsoft internship – where he worked on social tagging, a Web2.0-style bottom-up approach to ontological knowledge. “It was a new environment there” he says. “I could work with lawyers, designers, programmers.” He doesn't know yet what he'll do on graduation in a year, but he says the breadth of the Max Planck programme has given him a taste for several worlds – industry, research institutes, and academia.