Science Board Mulls Cyber-Infrastructure

The changing environment of academic research has prompted the National Science Board to consider a study of the cyber infrastructure needed to ensure continuing U.S. leadership in science and engineering.

Past surveys of the U.S. National Science and Engineering Infrastructure have focused on "bricks and mortar." Today the environment in which research is done is a more virtual laboratory, said National Science Foundation Director Rita Colwell during an Aug. 3 meet-ing of the board, which governs NSF. Colwell believes the agency should be look-ing five to 10 years down the road at the nation's science and engineering needs.

Because old definitions and directives don't recognize information technology as infrastructure, it might be time for the board to rethink the concept of a government-supported National Science and Engineering Infrastructure, said Joseph Bordogna, NSF deputy director.

An important part of a study, if conducted, would be defining the terms, such as infrastructure and tools, as well as defining who is responsible for cyber infrastructure, Bordogna said.

Included in a newly defined infrastructure might be advanced computing resources; digital libraries; shared data and information bases; research and education networks; distributed user facilities; and standards and protocols.

Under a congressional mandate, NSF conducts a biennial "Survey of Scientific and Engineering Research Facilities," but the survey doesn't collect information on information technology, noted Leslie Christovich, director of the academic infrastructure project at NSF.

The survey, conducted in partnership with the U.S. National Institutes of Health, takes a close look at research facilities at colleges and universities that spend $150,000 or more annually on research and development. It asks how much research space the institutions have, how much of that space is devoted to science and engineering, what condition the space is in, whether there is enough space available, how much construction of new research space is planned, and what types of repairs and renovations are needed.

NSF just completed the 1999 survey of "bricks and mortar" at about 550 colleges and universities. It also surveyed some 300 more institutions that serve as research hospitals and biomedical research organizations.

"Nowhere do we ask about issues the board discussed, such as shared databases or cyberspace," Christovich said. "Those are definitely topics we are considering how to handle in the future, but it's not going to be easy."

That's because some of the characteristics of virtual research space will especially complicate any measurements, she said. Virtual space is often shared, for instance. "With all that virtual space, who do you ask?"

Christovich said.

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