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Breakthroughs Magazine

Special Report: Computational Science — Behind Innovation and Discovery

Knowledge centers: sweet suites of informational tools

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has created a new way to manage scientific research and deal with the resulting information overload. Three types of knowledge centers—science-based, technology-based and mission-based—are tackling the daunting tasks of collecting, managing, visualizing, analyzing, distributing and storing massive data accumulations using unique software products.

"We've had clients asking us to help them manage their data and provide analytical tools for years," said Jim Thomas, a PNNL Fellow who directs the Lab's knowledge center activities. "One of the things that the Lab excels at is making sense out of information that on its own doesn't make sense. We take on large, complex data challenges and create a platform to give the information context. We have a great reputation for that."

Thomas explained the role of a knowledge center as having several parts in the data management continuum: data collection, synthesis, visualization, analysis, decision-making and communication. "There is a broad base of clients who need this kind of structure, from the intelligence community and homeland security to human health and industry. They come at it from a variety of perspectives," he added.

Knowledge centers transform volumes of disparate data into comprehendible information using unique software products that tap into the analytical powers of the human mind.

The human mind, the best resource for analyzing a lot of information, is particularly adept at quickly developing hypotheses or drawing conclusions from highly interactive visualizations. The National Visualization and Analytics Center or NVAC™ is a science-based knowledge center at PNNL formed to develop the next generation of tools and scientists to come up with such visual methods to import information into the human mind stimulating discovery and understanding. Many of NVAC's tools are used to detect and prevent terrorist events. However, the core technologies are also used in other applications.

Solutions-based knowledge centers are frequently tapped by government and industry clients across the country who recognize PNNL's skill in creating next generation solutions. According to Thomas, the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) Program demonstrates that capability. "ARM is an example of where we've helped to deploy instruments to collect, manage, package, archive and distribute data for people who can use it in their decision-making," he said. "It's a solution to a near real-time information flow, management and distribution challenge."

While non-government clients of the Laboratory's knowledge centers remain undisclosed, Thomas indicated that knowledge-center work impacts business clearly at the bottom line. "Companies use knowledge center products for competitive intelligence, patent analysis, strategic planning...even to design new products," Thomas said. "We have a broad range of existing research and best-in-class software tools. If we need an answer, we can push the science forward to get one. It's almost impossible for industry to do that. We offer a unique value that way."

Managed by Battelle for the U.S. Department of Energy, PNNL's work is funded primarily by the government. However, an existing contract allows much of the resulting research and technology to be leveraged by non-government clients. Most companies cannot profitably operate with experts in every scientific discipline on staff, making a partnership with the Lab immensely attractive for scientific research.

Knowledge centers have existed as part of PNNL for about 10 years, including those in partnership with other national laboratories. Strong capabilities have been built in biology, environmental sciences, and national security. Each knowledge center usually has an appointed advisory board that identifies the best scientists and science for the mission at hand, thus setting a research agenda for the center.

While most are not contained within the walls of a dedicated facility, the solid mission of each knowledge center is clear: offering a competitive advantage for clients by centralizing data and making it useful.

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