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A wide range of problems such as signal reconstruction, denoising, source separation, feature selection, and graphical model search are addressed today by posterior maximization for linear models with sparsity-favouring prior distributions. The Bayesian posterior contains useful information far beyond its mode, which can be used to drive methods for sampling optimization (active learning), feature relevance ranking, or hyperparameter estimation, if only this representation of uncertainty can be approximated in a tractable manner. In this paper, we review recent results for variational sparse inference, and show that they share underlying computational primitives. We discuss how sampling optimization can be implemented as sequential Bayesian experimental design. While there has been tremendous recent activity to develop sparse estimation, little attendance has been given to sparse approximate inference. In this paper, we argue that many problems in practice, such as compressive sensing for real-world image reconstruction, are served much better by proper uncertainty approximations than by ever more aggressive sparse estimation algorithms. Moreover, since some variational inference methods have been given strong convex optimization characterizations recently, theoretical analysis may become possible, promising new insights into nonlinear experimental design.