Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 27  |  January 2004  |  Number 1
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

The Role of Science in the Information Society
CERN, Geneva, 8-9 December 2003

by Judy Jackson

Her Royal Highness Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, Princess of Thailand
Dr. Nolwazi Mbananga from South Africa has a dream that one day electronic kiosks will allow South Africans in remote rural areas to use the Internet for access to improved medical care. Her Royal Highness Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, Princess of Thailand, hopes that her efforts to bring computer access to children in rural schools, people with disabilities and people in prison will improve life for the disadvantaged in her country. A computer scientist from Azerbaijian who did not wish to be identified believes that increased use of the Internet by citizens of his country may help to fight government corruption.

The computer that Ms. Vaira Vike-Freiberga, now president of Latvia, and her husband donated to the University of Latvia while in exile in Canada during Soviet rule is now at work creating an electronic archive of the thousands of folksongs that are central to Latvia's cultural identity.

Dr. Onno Purbo of Indonesia and his students are on a mission to create a national network of Internet cafes to bypass government inaction and bootstrap access to the Internet for citizens of Indonesia.
Dr. Onno Purbo of Indonesia
Ismail Serageldin, director general of the Library of Alexandria, the world's oldest library, believes we are standing at the threshold of a revolution in information technology and the organization of knowledge and that we must be willing to think of radical change.

Dr. Nico Stehr, Center for Advanced Cultural Studies in Essen, Germany, doubts that the Internet will prove a panacea against government corruption and exploitation. Dr. Folaju Olusegun Oyebola of Lagos, Nigeria has created the West African Doctors' Network, an online resource for physicians faced with some of the most daunting medical challenges on the planet. Dr. Esther Dyson the founding chair of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, wants individual scientists to get involved with ICANN but cautions that the organization has limited ability to bridge the digital divide. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, thinks it is useful to take time out now and then to think about where the information age is headed.

Dr. Esther Dyson, the founding chair of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers
The princess, the president, the computer scientist, the librarian, the Web guru and about 400 others had come to CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics in Geneva, for a two-day conference on the Role of Science in the Information Society. The conference, organized jointly by CERN, UNESCO, the International Council for Science, and the Third World Academy of Sciences, took place on December 8 and 9 as a lead-up to the United Nations World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva December 10-12. The U.S. particle physics community contributed a working science grid demonstration and an exhibit from QuarkNet, the first project to integrate grid-based activities into the physics classroom.

CERN Director Luciano Maiani told delegates that the organizers felt that the voice of the scientific community should be heard at the World Summit for several reasons. Basic science made possible the technologies that gave birth to the information society, Maiani said, and scientific research will influence future developments of the information society "from new electronic devices to the future architecture of the Internet, for example through the sharing of distributed computing resources via the Grid." Finally, the scientific community has the potential to empower scientists from regions hitherto largely excluded from scientific research, to create a "science sans frontières," or science without borders.

But what, if any, is the role of science in bridging the widening information and knowledge gap between the developed and developing world? A recurring question at the conference concerned the potential of information and communication technologies, or ICTs, themselves to address social, economic, educational and information inequities that divide rich and poor nations. Will it be possible, for example, asked Essen's Stehr, for developing nations to "jump the queue" and enter the information age directly, without passing through the stage of industrial development that has characterized the history of developed countries?

Santiago Borrero, Secretary General of the Pan-American Institute for Geography and History - Photos courtesy CERN
"Technology itself does not ensure the successful use and application of digital data," said Santiago Borrero, Secretary General of the Pan-American Institute for Geography and History. "Information technology, infrastructure and connectivity do not necessarily equate to information access and a real bridging of the digital divide."

Summing up the conference, Maiani told delegates that "several general themes have emerged as guidelines and have received clear support at RSIS: that fundamental scientific information be made freely available; that the software tools for dissemin-ating this information be also made freely available; that networking infrastructure for distributing this information be established world-wide; that training of people and equipment to use this information be provided in the host nations; that general education is an indispensable basis for the Information Society."

As for predicting the future of the information age, Berners-Lee pointed out the near impossibility of making accurate projections for information technology. Will science make Dr. Mbananga's dream of medical kiosks in Africa a reality? Bring cheaper bandwidth to Indonesian students? Help West African doctors fight AIDS or shine light on government corruption in former Soviet republics?

"It may be that a breakthrough by a couple of unknown high-school students will have more influence on the future of ICTs than all the conferences put together," Berners-Lee said. Nevertheless, he concluded, "the fact that we're all thinking about it together may mean this conference has succeeded already."

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