e-Science is a new paradigm of research, often characterised by a ``deluge'' of data analysed by massive distributed computing power. e-Science research collaborations are frequently large, distributed and multidisciplinary involving hundreds of institutions across the globe. Grid technology, emerging in response to these challenges, is enabling exciting possibilities for better research, even creating new disciplines like astro-informatics. In this context, a wide range of national and international initiatives are under way.
The concept of e-science is now broadening and evolving into e-research generally, to encompass the social sciences and the arts and humanities. At the same time it has to be recognised that different communities are at very different stages in their awareness of the new technologies: thus the current needs of a large international scientific collaboration are likely to be much more complex than those of the lone humanities researcher, wishing to collaborate more effectively with a handful of colleagues world-wide in the same field of interest. In our thinking we have tried to keep the whole range of requirements in view.
At the high end, the new developments are making the process of carrying out research more complex and demanding. The aim of a Virtual Research Environment (VRE) is to help researchers manage this complexity by providing an infrastructure specifically designed to support the activities carried out within research teams, on both small and large scales. JISC has recently been allocated £3.2 million as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review to develop a VRE.
The challenge is to create and sustain an infrastructure, ideally usable on a routine basis by researchers from all disciplines to enhance their productivity and effectiveness. Meeting this challenge is a task for those building the infrastructure, its potential user communities, the institutions to which users belong, the organisations which fund research and other stakeholders in the research process. These developments should not happen in isolation but will need to interwork with other components of the infrastructure being provided by JISC, Research Councils and HEIs themselves such as learning environments, digital libraries and national research facilities.
It is unclear, a priori, what type of framework a VRE should adopt, on which technologies it could be based, how it can be developed sustainably and how usability and take-up can be ensured. This document outlines a roadmap for developing a VRE. The target user community is all those engaged in research.
Disciplines, and communities within disciplines (especially in non-scientific subject areas), will have to identify the possibilities for them in the technology; may have to overcome cultural obstacles to collaboration; and may need training in relevant skills. Associated legal issues will need to be understood and clarified, and formal and informal codes of practice updated, to reflect understanding of novel forms of collaboration.
Locally, institutions will need to understand the business case for supporting research collaborations and how they can be reconciled with continuing institutional competition. Wider impacts will be felt through changes in scholarly communication and in the complexities of managing and sustaining long-term open access to data for reuse.
Additional background material and rationale for creating a VRE is contained in a report entitled Building Collaborative eResearch Environments, compiled for JISC by Andrew Cox, Department of Information Science, Loughborough University . This summarises the proceedings and breakout group discussions from two workshops held in March/ April 2004 at Edinburgh and Warwick universities. The report also contains a SWOT analysis. A brief summary of some of the main recommendations from these workshops is included as Appendix A of the report.
Background material from the UK e-science Grid, compiled by the Architecture Task Force, is contained in the report  UK Role in Open Grid Services Architecture by Malcolm Atkinson et al. This vision is being realised through the work of the Engineering Task Force and is be introduced onto the production National Grid Service (including the JCSR-funded computing and data clusters) during 2005.
Related JISC work on e-learning frameworks and tools is described at http://www.jisc.ac.uk/index.cfm?name=elearning_framework . Work on developing a distributed architecture as part of the JISC Information Environment is described at http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/distributed-systems/jisc-ie/arch/ and in reference .