ERIC Identifier: ED327219
Publication Date: 1990-11-00
Author: Bishop, Ann P.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Information Resources Syracuse
The National Research and Education Network (NREN):
Promise of New Information Environments. ERIC Digest.
This digest describes proposed legislation for the implementation of
the National Research and Education Network. Issues and implications for
teachers, students, researchers, and librarians are suggested and the emergence
of the electronic network as a general communication and research tool
Senator Albert Gore introduced the National High Performance Computing
Act of 1990 (S.1067) in order to create a national network of "information
superhighways" designed to transmit billions of bits of data per second.
The network would allow researchers, businesspeople, educators, and students
around the country to communicate with each other and to access a broad
range of research tools and information resources. Although Gore's bill
did not pass by the time the 101st Congress adjourned in October 1990,
it will most likely be reintroduced in January 1991. If the next version
of the bill resembles its predecessors, we can expect that it will seek
to accomplish some or all of the following objectives:
*Establish a Federal High Performance Computing Program in which science
agencies and national libraries will fund and conduct research, and develop
technologies and resources, appropriate for the NREN.
*Mandate the creation of the NREN--to link over 1,000 Federal and industrial
laboratories, educational institutions, libraries, and other facilities--over
the next five years.
*Promote the development of a number of electronic information resources
and services on the NREN, such as directories of users and databases, electronic
journals and books, access to computerized research facilities, tools,
and databases, access to commercial information resources and services,
and user support and training.
*Fund the development of supercomputers and advanced software to help
resolve certain "grand challenges" in science and engineering.
The proposed legislation complements ongoing Executive branch activities.
The main goals of these Federal initiatives are to help the U.S. to maintain
its leading edge in high-performance computing and to improve national
productivity. Continued research and development in high-performance computing
and networking is seen as critical to the country's competitiveness, security,
scientific and technological advancement, and, ultimately, to the welfare
of its citizens. Although it is clear that the emphasis of the bill is
on advanced computing and elite users, it nonetheless has the potential
to create widespread changes in today's information environment.
A CHANGING INFORMATION ENVIRONMENT
Since the late 1960s, uses and audiences for electronic communication
and computing have grown slowly but steadily in the research, education,
and library communities. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Research
Agency (DARPA) of the Department of Defense funded the development of the
first successful prototype packet-switching network, known as ARPANET,
in 1969. This network was used to connect organizations involved in government-sponsored
research in computing and networking. ARPANET served both as an object
of study and as a means to facilitate research communication and computing.
In 1984, NSF began establishing national supercomputer centers and designing
a high-speed telecommunications backbone, known as NSFNET, to provide access
to those centers for scientists and engineers in a variety of disciplines.
Institutions can link their local networks to NSFNET through state or regional
networks. These mid-level networks are independently operated and charge
fees for connections and use. NSFNET is currently the nation's largest
general purpose research network and serves as the backbone of the Internet,
a collection of networks that use the communications protocol developed
for ARPANET, called TCP/IP, for coding and transmitting electronic information.
The Internet is currently comprised of over 400 interconnected national,
regional, and institutional networks and is probably serving over a million
users around the world. Further, gateways exist between the Internet and
a variety of other networks.
Perhaps the most important of these is BITNET, a cooperative network
founded in 1981 that is widely used in research and education today. BITNET
differs from the Internet in several ways: it is not sponsored by the government,
is not open to commercial enterprises, aims to serve scholars as well as
scientists and engineers, and generally supports only electronic mail and
file transfer. BITNET merged its organization with CSNET, a network used
by computer science researchers, and became the Corporation for Research
and Education Networking (CREN) in 1989. It currently connects over 1,300
sites around the world.
Network resources and services have expanded greatly in the 1980s, along
with familiarity with the technology. Networking is gradually becoming
a more familiar tool in the classroom, laboratory, office, and library.
Current available services include:
*Electronic mail for exchanging messages
*File transfer for transmitting papers and data
*Online bulletin boards for posting queries and participating in discussions
*Online newsletters and journals for sharing news and research results.
These services make it easier to provide instruction to remote learners,
collaborate with geographically-dispersed colleagues, and tap the expertise
of a wide range of contacts.
Networks also currently provide online access to a variety of resources
and tools, such as:
*Library catalogs and databases
*Commercial, governmental, and not-for-profit information services (e.g.,
*Specialized research instruments (e.g., telescopes), applications (e.g.,
medial imaging), and databases (e.g., satellite data).
These network services and resources facilitate both traditional and
innovative education and research activities. They offer individuals at
small or geographically remote institutions a "lifeline" to their colleagues
and an opportunity to perform cutting-edge research. The NREN would, hopefully,
encourage the further development of electronic services and resources.
In addition, the NREN would make them available to an even broader audience,
and its speed and capacity would exceed those of existing networks.
ISSUES IN NATIONAL NETWORKING
Government and industry are working to solve technical problems such
as increasing speed, capacity, connectivity, reliability, and interfaces
of electronic networks. Political and economic problems are also receiving
increased attention. But a number of other important issues will need to
be resolved before national networking can reach its full potential. Problems
*Determining costs and establishing fees
*Guaranteeing universal access
*Providing adequate user support and training
*Determination of network use and management policies
*Overcoming organizational resistance to networking
*Providing directories and maintaining quality control of information
*Fitting network services to research and education norms for formal
and informal communication.
These problems will be extremely difficult to resolve because a national
network will connect a variety of institutions with differing goals, norms
of behavior, and needs and because the network will still consist of a
collection of smaller, independent networks. The library and education
communities have expertise to lend in these areas, but they need to make
both their expertise and their views better known to policy makers.
EMERGENCE OF NEW INITIATIVES
The gradual emergence of national networking has spawned a number of
new initiatives for network research, services, and advocacy. The Corporation
for National Research Initiatives, with a $15.8 million grant from NSF,
is overseeing hardware and software experimentation that will be carried
out by a number of corporate, academic, and government institutions. NSF
is also sponsoring research on the development of a national "Collaboratory,"
a collection of electronic research resources that would promote and facilitate
collaboration on a national scale. Reference Point, primarily a service
organization, hopes to assist the volunteer sector in the development and
use of new technologies for accessing, exchanging, and disseminating information.
An important new advocacy group is the Coalition for Networked Information
(CNI), whose members are academic and corporate information and computing
professionals. CNI aims to promote the provision of electronic information
services, and is particularly concerned with linking libraries to the network.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been established to address the
impact of electronic communication on society. It will foster public education
on social and legal issues and support litigation to protect First Amendment
rights in an electronic environment.
What these initiatives share is the desire to shape the future of national
networking in such a way that its benefits are made available to a broad
spectrum of users. Librarians and educators, in particular, can get involved
in such initiatives to assure that the needs and perspectives of their
constituencies receive adequate attention from national policy makers and
Arms, Caroline R. (1990, September). "A new information infrastructure."
Online, 14(5), 15-22.
Arms, Caroline R. (1990, September). "Using the national networks: BITNET
and the Internet." ONLINE, 14(5), 24-29.
Cline, Nancy. (1990, Summer). "Information resources and the national
network." EDUCOM Review, 25(2), 30-34.
Doty, Philip, Bishop, Ann P., & McClure, Charles R. (1990). "The
National Research and Education Network (NREN): An empirical study of social
and behavioral issues." In Diane Henderson (Ed.), Proceedings of the 53rd
Annual Meeting of the American Society for Information Science (pp. 284-299).
Medford, NJ: Learned Information.
Gore, Albert. (1990, Summer). "Remarks on the NREN." EDUCOM Review,
McClure, Charles R., Bishop, Ann P., Doty, Philip, & Rosenbaum,
Howard. (1990). "Realizing the promise of the NREN: Social and behavioral
considerations." In Carol A. Parkhurst (Ed.), Library Perspectives on NREN:
The National Research and Education Network (pp. 23-32). Chicago: Library
and Information Technology Association.
Panel of Information Technology and the Conduct of Research. (1989).
Information Technology and the Conduct of Research: The User's View. Washington,
DC: National Academy of Sciences.
Quarterman, John S. (1990). The Matrix: Computer Networks and Conferencing
Systems Worldwide. Bedford, MA: Digital Press.
Rogers, Susan M. (1990, Summer). "Educational applications of the NREN."
EDUCOM Review, 25(2), 25-29.
U.S. Congress. Senate. Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
(1990). High-Performance Computing Act of 1990: REPORT ON S. 1067. 101st
Cong., 2nd session. S. Rept. 387. Washington, DC: GPO.