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Tim Berners-Lee and others are studying the Web’s design, operation, and impact on society through the Web Science Research Initiative (WSRI). The initiative, launched by MIT and England’s University of Southampton, will lead to new courses, and new research projects for PhD students, at both institutions. WSRI’s leaders hope eventually to create a discipline of Web science.

Web science, as WSRI sees it, must draw its methods from two existing sciences. First, Berners-Lee and his colleagues contend, it must employ the largely synthetic approach of computer science–which is chiefly concerned with developing languages and algorithms that will get computers to do new things. To that it must add the analytical approach of the physical and biological sciences, which aim to discover laws that govern behavior in systems; this approach might help make sense of human interaction on the Web.

“We are looking at this huge, complex system and trying to understand if we have the ability to change the underlying infrastructure [that] the mass of humanity created, so new things can happen,” says Berners-Lee, who is currently director of the World Wide Web Consortium, a senior research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), and a professor at the University of Southampton. “When you open a whole new research area, you ask a lot more questions of what is possible.” Joining Berners-Lee to lead this initiative are CSAIL director Rodney Brooks; Daniel J. Weitzner, also of MIT, who is technology and society domain leader at the World Wide Web Consortium; Wendy Hall, a professor of computer science at Southampton; and Nigel Shadbolt, a professor of artificial intelligence at Southampton.

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Credit: Donna Coveney/MIT

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