Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Academic partnerships building development

Crises in countries on the fringes of Europe dominate world news: Ukraine, Syria, Libya and Egypt have replaced Kosovo, Georgia and Lebanon in the headlines in past years. What these countries have in common is not only border and ethnic conflict, but a limited ability to develop advanced economies due to (amongst other factors) a crippled and underfunded education and research sector. This leads not only to an isolation from global scientific communities, but to a generation of students without the skills needed to build the high-value SMEs and start-ups essential for a vibrant and globally-engaged economy.

It is well known that the developing world suffers what has long been termed the ‘digital divide’. This term has typically referred to the historical lack of availability of internet bandwidth in geographically isolated countries in the grip of incumbent telecommunication monopolies. Although this situation persists in many countries (even in some EU member states), the price of Internet connectivity has plummeted in a number of countries previously badly impacted –Ukraine and Turkey are two examples where wholesale internet connectivity is available at less than €1/Mbps/Month –comparable with pricing in Western Europe.

So, it is certainly encouraging to see widespread access to the Internet –but unfortunately this does not equate to good access to scientific data and facilities. Open Data is a hot topic in certain sectors of the scientific community, but its impact will not reach beyond leading scientific nations if high-quality infrastructure is not available for research and education. This infrastructure comprises not only internet networks (at a higher quality and capacity than commoditised services) but also computing and data storage facilities.

The European Commission has recently signed an €13.7M contract to deliver a high speed academic network for Eastern European and the Caucasus –based upon feasibility work conducted in my team at G√ČANT. This will go a long way towards building essential capacity –both technical and human –but the focus needs to be wider. CERN is building partnerships in developing regions –notably for this discussion, the Caucasus and North Africa. This promises to begin to spread the benefits of global scientific collaboration to developing countries –in terms of access to the world’s most advanced (and expensive to produce) scientific data, but also in beginning to build local data infrastructures to exploit the data. This is a great step forward, but if genomics, climate and agricultural data can also be accessed through the same pathways, and locally-relevant analysis can be computed, then the societal impact will be more immediately tangible. Given the recent dramatic flooding in Tbilisi, the relevance of data-centric disciplines such as climate-modelling cannot be in doubt.