Rechecking the Weather

By Robert C. Heterick, Jr.

Sequence: Volume 31, Number 1

Release Date: January/February 1996

At a recent meeting of the National Academy of Engineering, Vice President Al Gore related the story of the scientist who came to Cambridge University in the mid-1950s hoping to meet Paul Dirac, who had earlier won the Nobel Prize in Physics. The scientist succeeded in being seated next to Dirac at dinner, but, once in the distinguished man's presence, became speechless. Finally, searching for some topic of normal conversation, he seized upon the weather outside. "It is very windy, Professor," he said. Whereupon Dirac rose and left the table. The scientist was mortified, convinced that he had somehow offended his hero. Dirac went to the door, opened it, looked out, came back, sat down and said "Yes."

One of the morals of this story might be that it never hurts to confirm what seems obvious.

The repercussions of the effort to balance budgets in the states as well as in Washington have already begun to be felt widely through our economy. Revenue pressures on institutions of higher education, particularly those that are state-assisted, continue unabated. We have witnessed a near doubling of tuition and fees at many institutions over the past five years with the prospect of something similar for the next five.

Attention in the higher education community has been focused (and rightly so) on how student aid and the student loan program will fare in the budget balancing process. What seems to have escaped notice in the academic community, or at least broad attention, is the status of federally funded research in our nation's colleges and universities. Perhaps it is time to go out and check the weather.

Budget bills currently being debated in Congress contain significant cuts in research and development. If the bills pass in their current form and survive the promised Presidential veto, we can expect something on the order of a 30 percent cut in federally sponsored research in our institutions of higher education. These cuts will have a particularly significant impact on colleges of engineering and many computer science programs.

Irrespective of one's view of the necessity or desirability of these research and development cuts - whether one sees them as strategic investments in the nation's future or as a barrel of "pork" for the nation's high technology industries - the ramifications for higher education will be profound. While the immediate impact will be felt by the 100 or so research institutions, there will, following a slight lag, be a secondary shock wave that will shake all institutions of higher education. The constriction in faculty research programs will be followed by a reduction in graduate student employment opportunities and ultimately in some stress on the pool of faculty in the next generation.

Less obvious may be the impact on Net developments of significant value to higher education. NSFNet was built through a collaboration of the National Science Foundation, federal agency research, and academic and commercial research organizations. The perceived utility of the Internet owes much to those same collaborators - the World Wide Web, Gopher, Z39.50 and Mosaic come immediately to mind. A scarcity of research dollars in institutions of higher education is sure to stymie the development of useful Net products. If history repeats itself, we are not likely to see the commercial sector rise to the challenge as their expenditures on research and development tend to mirror that of the federal government.

While we are checking the weather, we might pay a little attention to the currently hot topic of domain names. The prospect of the commercial sector rising to the challenge can be found here also.

The problem, probably well-known to most folks, is the incredible success of the Internet and the desire, primarily among commercial entities, to register every possibly interesting domain name - from "" to "Wheaties." This rush to register domain names swamped the NSF and its sub-contractor, creating backlogs in the thousands, not to mention a significant shortfall in dollars budgeted for this purpose.

In response, the National Science Foundation implemented a policy of charging $50 for each .com domain name registration (NSF continues to carry the costs of registrations in the .edu and .gov domains). Clearly this policy has had the desired effect as registration requests have dropped precipitously. The pressure is now on the Foundation to transfer the process totally to the commercial realm.

A little contemplation will convince anyone that this is a complex issue and likely to become more so in the future. In a world of multinationals there isn't apt to be much interest in country-centric domains so it isn't likely that national governments doling out domain names will occur. There are any number of policy issues that are of fundamental interest to the public sector. The prospect of a competitive commercial solution isn't particularly attractive for protecting the interests of higher education.

Robert C. Heterick, Jr., is president of Educom. [email protected]

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