Cyberinfrastructure, Innovation and University Policy
February 21, 2008
(reception the night of February 20)
Keck Center of the National Academies
500 Fifth St., NW
Research universities hold a unique, central position in a global economy increasingly dependent on knowledge. The successful integration of education and research has stimulated regional and national growth, generating hopes of future growth as well as expectations that universities should generate economic returns on their own. But while universities are still seen as local assets, they must perform in an environment where critical resources – data, standards, tools, skills, and expertise – are becoming ever more mobile and globally accessible.
At the same time, the entire academic enterprise is greatly empowered by these resources, which are used to develop and manage knowledge in new ways by faculty, staff, and students. The success of the Internet provides a compelling account of transformation and leadership within the academic community. Researchers pioneered the early development of the Internet, while leading universities helped it expand from a research project used for research to a production infrastructure primed for commercialization and unlimited uses.
As distinct from conventional notions of technology transfer, commercialization of the Internet did not simply lead to an end product outside of higher education. Rather it signified an ongoing, decentralized and distributed process of transformation inside and outside of academia. The institutional roots of cyberinfrastructure lie in open science, and it draws on the precepts and technology of the open Internet. It is not limited to the sciences but stands as a landmark concept within a broad continuum transforming how knowledge is generated, organized, and applied.
In an environment of intensifying competition and globalization, the Internet has affected commerce far more than it has changed the university. Yet universities face the same lowering of barriers and blurring of boundaries – across distant locations, between informal communication and formal publication, among disciplines and professions, among institutions, between institutional mission and market forces, between scientific research and commercial innovation. The Internet has enhanced and intensified interaction between the campus and the world beyond. It has amplified, diversified, and extended collaboration and the movement of knowledge and know-how in and out of the university. It has accelerated innovation, favoring outsourcing over vertical integration, multiparty over bilateral collaborations, and complex parallel interaction relative to linear, serial processes.
The Internet exemplified technology push. It was, and is, an enabling platform open for innovators to build on in many unforeseeable ways. By contrast, cyberinfrastructure is human-centered, designed from the bottom up for the knowledge needs of user communities. Its greatest value is in its use – i.e., context-specific design and integration rather than the component data, instruments, bandwidth, and other particular resources (all of which may be shared with other users). While cyberinfrastructure commonly supports research, it can also support downstream applications and processes, collaborative software development, or electronic commerce.
For the university, cyberinfrastructure is many different things: a tool for addressing specific research problems, a vehicle for managing research and education, a challenge to business as usual, an object of research and innovation, and an opportunity to redefine the university’s relationship to the world. Cyberinfrastructure presents academic leaders with a grand challenge close to home: how to marshal knowledge, technology, and innovation to best advance more knowledge, technology, and innovation.