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The Internet as an Ever-Expanding Platform for Global Research

The Internet as an Ever-Expanding Platform for Global Research

Following is a bylined article by Lori A. Perine (*) deputy to the Associate Director, Technology, in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, originally appearing in the November, 2000 Electronic Journal "Internet Communities Linking the World". Source: Washington File, U.S. Department of State. EUR 415. November 16, 2000.

Washington D.C. -- The history of technology is full of examples of revolutionary science and technology advances with surprisingly humble origins. Such is the story of the Internet. Like the printing press, the 15th century technology to which it is often compared, the Internet today is spawning global economic and cultural transformations that began three decades ago as a simple effort among scholars and researchers to more easily share knowledge and resources.

In the late 1960s, four American universities were engaged in research of defense-related applications for computers. The applications, forerunners of the software and services now in common commercial and personal use, tested the limits of computational power available at the time. The research teams began to explore ways of sharing their data and computational power among themselves. The obvious solution, establishing a data network between the four university sites, carried with it a major technical challenge: the computers had to be connected in a way that would allow the network to continue to function, even in face of military attack.

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) agreed to fund this "internetting project." A networking technique known as "packet switching" was developed that allowed data traveling along the network to reroute itself if any part of the network should cease to function. The first network connected researchers at four universities and was completed in 1969, establishing the first nodes of what would eventually become the Internet.

As the network grew in the early 1970s to encompass more than 100 research sites, there was an increasingly pressing need to find a "common language" for communication between different types of computers. The Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) standard emerged in 1974 as a way of addressing and transporting data packets along the "network of networks" that had evolved. By the late 1980s, the population of Internet users and network constituents expanded internationally and began to include commercial facilities.

With packet switching and the TCP/IP standard forming the basic underlying technologies, the invention of the World Wide Web in 1990 at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland expanded the potential of the Internet beyond education and research communities. Created so that researchers around the world could easily access and retrieve information in a variety of formats from remote sites around the world, the technology made applications as diverse as telemedecine and e-commerce possible. Today, the Internet connects numerous networks in educational and research institutions, businesses, and government organizations across the globe. The set of technologies originally developed to meet basic communications needs of military and academic researchers now provide the technology platform for international communications, collaboration, and commerce.

Global Collaboration

Today's Internet remains a vital tool for collaboration within the research community. The power of the Internet for enabling advances in basic scientific research and expanding education is such that U.S. academic and government researchers are primary partners in developing the next generation Internet. These advances in network speed and robustness, coupled with the expanding international reach of the Internet, also provide enhanced opportunities for discoveries that bridge nations and scientific disciplines. Researchers exploring complex and interdisciplinary problems can access large data repositories, tap into computational resources, and consult with colleagues from around the world. Using advanced visualization technologies and collaborative environments, scientific colleagues can view, interact with, and control a single experiment from multiple locations. The examples below illustrate the scope and breadth of current international collaborations made possible through the Internet.

Student-to-Scientist: The Global Learning and Observation to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce, is a worldwide partnership of students, teachers, and scientists collaborating internationally in studies of the global environment. Through the Internet, scientists and students work together as an extended research team. Hundreds of thousands of students and more than 15,000 teachers in more than 9,700 schools in 95 countries collect and send weather data via the Internet to GLOBE. They then use the extensive analysis and visualization capabilities of the GLOBE Web site (http:www.globe.gov) to view graphs and maps and study weather phenomena worldwide.

Scientist-to-Scientist: In December 1999, SIMnet, an Internet-based interactive system, demonstrated real-time comparisons of scientific measurements performed at meteorology laboratories throughout the Americas. The SIMnet project, developed by the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology, was tested by 12 countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, Trinidad and Tobago, the United States, and Uruguay. With support from the Organization of American States (OAS), SIMnet helped to accomplish two major objectives set at the 1994 Summit of the Americas: increasing cooperation in science and technology, and promoting prosperity and free trade by eliminating technical barriers to international trade. The new system provides multiple clients with the ability to share real-time Internet-based audio, video, data, and applications in order to develop and agree upon technical meteorological standards and certifications.

The United States and European Community are also collaborating on a research agenda for global access to large scientific databases in biology, physics, the environment, and other disciplines. The research community is generating large amounts of valuable data, and new technologies are needed to store, access, and fully extract relevant information. The Internet and associated networking technologies are vital to the success of this endeavor, since a crucial requirement for collaboration is trans-Atlantic data communications that provide high bandwidth, high availability, and low latency.

Denizen-to-Denizen: Commercial and non-profit researchers are exploring new Internet applications and appliances to help bring thousands of millions of world citizens into the digital economy. A large Swedish telecommunications giant recently announced plans for the Ericsson Bangladesh Wireless Initiative, which calls for the launch of a mobile Internet service in Bangladesh in early 2001. This service would provide mobile telephone users access to the Internet using Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) without the need for expensive online computers. In a similar effort in Honduras, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and OAS sponsored the creation of a locally sustainable telecommunications network. In order to adapt the technology to its rural location for use by local people, the network runs on solar power, and provides Internet connections through satellite downlinks.

Medical Expert-to-Caregiver: Biomedical research, public health, and individual healthcare are all areas where the Internet is providing new technology for collaborations previously not possible. Recently, a surgeon at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore performed a complicated surgical procedure guided by video input coming over the Internet from another surgeon monitoring the surgery half a continent away. The surgical procedure was reported at the annual meeting of the American College of Surgeons. Similar technology allows x-ray images to be examined over the Internet by physicians at remote locations. These advances demonstrate the potential for providing quality medical care to disadvantaged or remote locations throughout the world. An equally important capability provided by the Internet is sharing online medical databases, biomedical data, and even basic healthcare information. Access to this type of information has the potential to revolutionize health and nutrition worldwide. Individual projects throughout the world are bringing together local medical providers, Internet content providers, and health specialists to create relevant information in an appropriate format, supported by a sustainable technical infrastructure.

International collaborations using the Internet can also aid in controlling the spread of infectious diseases. Scientists, medical personnel, and other healthcare professionals working together using Internet technologies report disease incidences to a central repository, thus providing a more comprehensive mechanism to identify and track the progress of infectious diseases. Current cultural beliefs that inhibit effective reporting and treatment of diseases can also be addressed. Computer kiosks can be made available to indigenous populations to gather public health information and provide healthcare tips anonymously, avoiding existing cultural taboos that have significantly hampered efforts to date.

New Environments for Discovery

The research community has been very creative in using the technology to establish global collaborations. As a result, a variety of innovative Internet applications are emerging as researchers use the network as a tool for scientific inquiry, and experiment with its use in potential solutions.

As the next generation Internet with its advanced capabilities evolves, scientists and engineers will be able to participate in dramatically new environments for discovery. High-speed, secure, and reliable communications promise to enable scientific and technical discoveries through virtual collaboration, access to complex information, high-fidelity scientific modeling of complex phenomena, and the sharing of data and computational resources -- all without regard to physical location.

The technical promise of the next generation Internet is not the only thing that will determine the potential for future Internet-enabled collaboration among international researchers. Attention must also be given to issues of access, to basic connectivity, to advanced services, and to content. Ninety-five percent of the world's population has no Internet connection, and a distinct limit to collaborative opportunities. Where connectivity is available, scientific and research applications often require advanced, high-speed, low-latency capabilities that may not be supported by today's Internet. Providing this capability over long distances both nationally and internationally can be prohibitively expensive. Finally, content itself can present access issues. Interoperability of data formats (for example, scientific data or public health data), language translation, and presenting the information in a format that is understandable to the user are as important as underlying technology for delivering the content.

Technical research in networking and other information technologies can provide partial solutions for many of these access issues. However, associated technical, economic, and legal factors must be examined together so that the appropriate conditions can be established to facilitate Internet-based collaboration.


Scientists, engineers, and students are using the Internet to collaborate with colleagues throughout the world to share information and data, conduct basic research, and develop technology in areas as diverse as environmental protection, basic physics, and monitoring emerging infectious diseases. The next generation Internet will create exciting new environments for discovery. Yet attention must be given to access issues that may be limiting opportunities for collaboration. Addressing the interaction of technical, economic, and legal factors can increase the potential for future Internet-enabled collaborative research.

(*) The author is deputy to the associate director, Technology, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.


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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).