Information Superhighway Envisioned-Legislation Pending to Establish National Computer Network

Published in Probe Volume 1(1-2): Spring-Summer 1991


Susan McCarthy, Coordinator
Plant Genome Data and Information Center
National Agricultural Library, USDA

A national superhighway for information may soon become a reality if Congress passes the proposed legislation needed to establish the National Research and Education Network (NREN)--a highcapacity, high-quality computer network that supports a broad set of applications and network services for the research and education community.

NREN would expand and upgrade the existing interconnected array of primarily scientific research networks that comprise Internet, including the nationwide NSFNET (the backbone), regional networks such as NYSERNET and SURANET, and local area networks. NSFNET, perhaps the best known of the Internet networks, allows researchers and educators to exchange up to l.5 million bits of data per second. The proposed NREN is expected to be at least a thousand times faster.

Facilitating Genome Research

Fast, high-quality networks (gigabit per second transmission rate) are needed to facilitate access to genome data. NREN would link libraries, government research laboratories, industry, and universities. The National Agricultural Library and the National Library of Medicine are cited in the proposed legislation as focal points in the information distribution networks. These libraries play vital roles in the genome programs for humans, plants, and animals.

Proposed Legislation

Senator Albert Gore, Jr. (D-TN) introduced a bill (S272) in the Senate this year to establish NREN under the High Performance Computing Act of 1991. Recently, Representative George Brown (DCA) introduced a companion bill (HR656) in the House. Legislation was first proposed by Senator Gore in 1988. Last year a revised version of the bill was unanimously passed by the Senate, but the House failed to act on the companion bill. The current Senate and House bills have been placed on the congressional calendar.

Under the proposed legislation, the National Science Foundation would provide leadership in establishing the new fiber-optic computer network in cooperation with the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the Department of Commerce, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and other agencies.

A third bill introduced this year proposes to establish a Federal High-Performance Computer Network, which would serve many of the same purposes envisioned for NREN. Senator J. Bennett Johnston (D-LA) is sponsoring the bill--the Department of Energy HighPerformance Computing Act of 1991 (S343). The Department of Energy is designated lead agency under the proposed legislation.

Increased Funds and Support

A new Presidential Initiative, "Grand Challenges: HighPerformance Computing and Communications," issued by the Office of Science and Technology Policy calls for a 30 percent increase in funding for FY 1992. The funds will support high-performance computing systems, advanced software technology and algorithms, NREN, basic research, and human resources.

Japan and Europe are well ahead of the United States in recognizing the need for an information infrastructure. Maintaining the United States' technological lead and competitiveness targets this critical technology for congressional action. Support of the proposed legislation will have a positive benefit for genome research programs. The supernetwork--expanded, upgraded, and connected--will maximize the benefits and technology-transfer opportunities derived from the genome projects.