Research on Today's Internet
For researchers, the expanding Internet means moremore data, more collaboration, and more complex systems of interactions. And while not every university and research institution is hooked up to the vBNS, all forms of the Internet have brought radical changes to the way research is conducted.
Ken Weiss is an anthropologist at Penn State University and an NSF-supported researcher studying the worldwide genetic variability of humans. While he is not actively seeking a hook-up to the vBNS, he says the Internet has had a significant impact on his research. For example, he uses email constantly, finding it more convenient than the phone ever was. And he has access to much more data. He can download huge numbers of gene sequences from around the world and do research on specific genes.
Weiss is an active user and enthusiast, but he does not necessarily agree that more is always better. "The jury is still out on some aspects, such as the exponential growth of databases, which may be outpacing our ability for quality control. Sometimes the data collection serves as a substitute for thought," says Weiss.
Other disciplines are seeing an equally phenomenal surge of information. Researchers can now get many journals online when they once needed to work geographically close to a university library. The surge of data is both a boon and a problem for researchers trying to keep on top of their fields. But no one is asking to return to the pre-Internet days, and no one is expecting the information growth to end.
On a more profound level, the Internet is changing science itself by facilitating broader studies. "Instead of special interest groups focusing on smaller questions, it allows people to look at the big picture," says Mark Luker, who was responsible for high-performance networking programs within CISE until 1997 and is now vice president at EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit organization concerned with higher education and information technology.
By "special interest groups," he means the more traditional, individualistic style of science where a researcher receives a grant, buys equipment, and is the sole author of the results. The current trend is for multiple investigators to conduct coordinated research focused on broad phenomena, according to Tom Finholt, an organizational psychologist from the University of Michigan who studies the relationship between the Internet and scientists.
This trend, Finholt and others hasten to add, has existed for a long time, but has been greatly enhanced by the Internet's email, Web pages, and electronic bulletin boards. In addition, formal collaboratoriesor virtual laboratories of collaboratorsare forming around the globe. The Space Physics and Aeronomy Research Collaboratory (SPARC) is one of these. Developed as the Upper Atmospheric Research Collaboratory (UARC) in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1992 and focused on space science, this collaboratory has participants at sites in the United States and Europe. Scientists can read data from instruments in Greenland, adjust instruments remotely, and "chat" with colleagues as they simultaneously view the data.
"Often, space scientists have deep but narrow training," says Finholt. SPARC allows them to fit specialized perspectives into a bigger picture. "Space scientists now believe they have reached a point where advances in knowledge will only be produced by integrating information from many specialties."
Furthermore, the collaboration is no longer as physically draining as it once was. Now, scientists like Charles Goodrich of the University of Maryland and John Lyon of Dartmouth College can continue collaborating on space-weather research, even when one person moves away. While Goodrich admits that the work might be done more easily if it could be done in person, he is sure that both the travel budget and his family life would suffer if he tried. "You can put your data on the Web, but not your child," he quips.