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The Importance of National Research and Education Networks in an Era of Political Change

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CENIC 2.0 | The Right Connection – took place in the midst of significant global changes in the political landscape. Those changes have the potential to impact policies affecting national research and education networks. It wasn’t surprising, therefore, that discussion among the international research and education network leaders who took part turned to the impact of politics on their work.

“How do we as a community ensure that networking supersedes politics?” said Carlos Casasus, Director General of Mexico’s University Corporation for Internet Development (CUDI). “How do we as a community assure our partners, such as those in Mexico, that politics will not affect their science?”

His colleagues noted that their first challenge may be defining the value of the networks themselves. “We always talk about the fabric of R&E networks, and I usually find that complicated because we are not like a carpet,” said Cathrin Stover, Chief Collaboration Officer for Europe’s GÉANT. “We are more multidimensional. Sometimes I need to work on the technical level and sometimes it’s on the human relationship level. And then sometimes I need to get to the political level to make the case that we need additional resources. How do we as networkers support this multidimensional network and become a seamless organism in which our value is understood?”

The panelists agreed that this was the current task for each within their nations and between nations. They also noted that the underlying assumptions that have guided the development of NRENs — that the investment provides a public good — are now being challenged by the shift in the political climate.

“Once we have built the infrastructure, the question is who pays for it?” said Casasus. “It’s not the problem of who gets on the network. The problem is how you share huge fixed investments that have to be made up front.”

Casasus went on to note that the costs of growing corn or building a highway system are borne by those who eat the corn or who travel on the highways. The recently emerging political perspective is based on a belief that those who use a service must pay the full cost of the service, and the idea that a broad, public good should be paid for by a, public investment is being questioned.

“Shared investment in our infrastructure is fantastic for education, for health, for research,” said Casasus. “But those returns cannot be assigned to any direct beneficiary. And that leads to discussions that question whether the provision of a public good is truly good for civilization.”Indiana University’s Jennifer Schopf said that the U.S. has seen this policy shift before.

“In the 1980s, we saw big cuts in research and education, and I think we can assume there will now be significant cuts in geoscience, sociology, behavioral, and economic fields,” said Schopf. “We will lose people and we will lose knowledge, and that gap will create a problem. The gap can partially be addressed by fostering more collaboration between scientists to share data where it still is being collected.”

Stover agreed. “Knowledge needs every single person’s involvement. Three scientists working on a problem together over the Internet can really make a difference in solving problems. We don’t know where the little bit extra comes from that makes the difference in solving major issues, but unless we connect the researcher or student who can contribute that little bit extra, we will never know.”

Her colleague Meoli Kashorda, Executive Director of the Kenya Education Network (KENET)  agreed.  “We see that the easiest places to collaborate are those enabled by our people connections as well as the broadband connections. So for Kenya, the most traffic goes to the U.S., where we have our people connections.”

Panelists noted that CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, provides an important model for multi-national collaboration. The laboratory was founded on land that crossed the French and Swiss border, and now has twenty-two member states involved in its search for answers.

“CERN has a mandate — there is no intellectual property. Basically, no one owns the Higgs boson (an elementary particle in the Standard Model of particle physics),” noted Casasus. “All of the publications about this particle are open source. It’s public science for the benefit of society. And we still have a need for these types of projects. It’s important to our future that nobody can appropriate this knowledge. We are investing in this for the collective public benefits of scientific discovery. And just think — these discoveries could end up as free energy for everyone.”

With their deep understanding of the opportunities and obstacles that exist, researchers, technology experts, and administrators around the globe are united in their commitment to deploy and strengthen research and education networks, bringing high-speed broadband to all.