Researchers across the entire scientific spectrum – including linguistics, the environment, medicine, astronomy and biology – are increasingly making use of data science. Big datasets are linked and smart algorithms are applied to detect unexpected patterns that cast new light on important questions. The results can range from new medical treatments and greener fuels to a better understanding of our history.
‘We’re currently witnessing a revolution in data science,’ says Joost Kok, Professor of Fundamental Computer Science. ‘This revolution was triggered by rapid developments in the area of high-performance computers and storage, combined with new algorithms such as ‘deep learning’ and the ubiquitous Big Data.’
Focal point for data science
Leiden University is important for data science in the Netherlands and has initiated several standards in the discipline. One reason for this, explains Kok, is that the University has always worked with data. ‘Leiden has a long tradition of producing and collecting large quantities of data in libraries, museums, laboratories, hospitals and the Observatory. Cohort studies and telescopes have been creating big datasets for a very long time.’
Collecting and classifying data is not the only long tradition of the University: for many decades before data science became a buzzword, research in statistics was a flourishing field of study here. ‘With data science, you’re trying to find the real signal among all the noise in a dataset. To do that, you need a solid basis in maths and statistics,’ says Aad van der Vaart, Professor of Stochastics and Spinoza Prize winner. Leiden University is therefore renowned for the mathematical, fundamental approach to data science, by combining statistics with computer science.
Leiden University’s expertise in the area of data science clearly extends beyond the walls of the Faculty of Science. ‘Leiden is an excellent example of a multidisciplinary university,’ says Kok. ‘Our philosophy is that excellent scholars in different disciplines should work together. The leading researchers in astronomy collaborate with those in computer science, but both remain anchored in their own research field.’
This approach results in an incredible variety of research projects. For instance, Leiden researchers are participating in a project to provide digital access to handwritten 19th century expedition reports and make them searchable. They are also developing methods for predicting dementia from brain scans, and researching the ethical and legal implications of artificial intelligence. The origin of black holes is one of the topics being studied by astronomers, while the international standard for making data accessible to data scientists was also developed here at Leiden University.
Data science research programme
To give even greater impetus to the field of data science, a university-wide data science research programme was recently launched, involving an investment of four million euros over a period of four years. This will have the effect of further stimulating the exchange of knowledge between different research domains.