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Leaping ahead with a network

Kilometers of cables connect Paulista researchers amongst themselves and with world science

Since 1995, FAPESP’s Infrastructure Program has already released about R$ 500 million to provide material for research in São Paulo. Roughly R$ 65 million of this total was set aside for the implementation of computer networks in universities and research institutes in the state of São Paulo. Networks that interconnect, amongst themselves and with the world, laboratories, institutes and colleges, university campuses. Like an underground web of threads, fibers, and cables extend throughout the territory of the state, speeding up the processing and exchange of information, to the direct benefit of teachers, researchers, students and members of staff at the universities and institutes.

Professor Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, FAPESP’s president and a director of the Gleb Wataghin Institute of Physics, of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), likes to make a comparison with the invention of the printing press by Johannes Guttenberg, in 1450 in Germany, to situate the place of information technology in the contemporary world. “The alterations that the new IT technologies bring about have a parallel in what happened as a result of the invention of the press. IT technologies produce an increase in efficiency and productivity. They are vital for expanding communication. And more communication is essential for scientific production.”

With this in mind, and realizing the existence of significant bottlenecks in the IT area of São Paulo research institutions, that FAPESP set up, right in the second stage of the Infrastructure Program, the local IT network module, to invest directly in the creation of networks of high efficiency, within universities and institutes. In all, 650 projects were benefited, many kilometers of cable implanted, and thousands of points installed for connecting computer terminals. This supplement, the second in a series on the Infrastructure Program published by the magazine Pesquisa FAPESP will be telling a bit of the story of the transformations brought about in research institutions by this invisible web: computer networks. The articles are by Maria Aparecida Medeiros, and edited by Mário Leite Fernandes.

Information Flow

The impact of the implementation of the computer networks in the scientific production of São Paulo can be perceived with clarity. It is not, however, an impact that is measurable in concrete terms. At least, not in all areas. “On the conceptual level, the entire world recognizes that a greater capacity for receiving and transmitting data increases the capacity for scientific production”, states Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz. According to him, though, measuring the impacts could only be possible in areas where the computer is an instrument for simulations and calculations, or, again, in projects that involve large networks of researchers, such as the Genome and Biota programs. “In the other projects that are smaller though no less important to FAPESP, we still have no notion of the significance of access to the international flow of data on their results, but it must be very great.”

The deputy rector for research of the University of São Paulo (USP), Hernan Chaimovich, points out the importance of these networks for integrating the university and the globalized world. “If I could sum up in one sentence FAPESP’s responsibilities for the technological changes in the IT area that have taken place in the university over the last few years, I would say the following: with its own budgetary resources, USP would not have been capable of keeping pace with these changes. FAPESP’s investments have allowed the university to adapt to the global technological changes”, he states. That is no small feat. In one of its institutes alone, the Institute of Chemistry, USP has over 900 computers. The new structure is also going upstate. In São José do Rio Preto, the São Paulo State University (Unesp) has a supercomputer similar to Deep Blue, the machine that stood up to the world chess champion, Garry Kasparov. It was bought under a program that involves not only support from FAPESP but partnerships with IBM.

The kickoff of FAPESP’s Infrastructure Program, in the middle of the 90’s, coincided with the expansion of the Internet, which has helped to transform the computer into, not only an instrument for communication, but also an instrument for information. It went beyond replacing ordinary mail and telex by electronic mail. “It was a phenomenon that completely changed the posture of the researcher in the face of information”, Chaimovich comments. “Information is now in real time. This applies to everything, from communication between people to the search for information from a global source, which is the web”, Brito adds. Cruz points to a phenomenon. “Electronic contact allows access to scientific magazines the day they are published. It used to be necessary, before that, to wait two or three months to receive the magazine.”

Covered distance
There is a long distance between the appearance of the first computers in the universities, back in the 80’s. Clumsy, slow and heavy, compared with today’s machines, those first computers were used mainly in the areas of Physics and Mathematics, where their capacity for carrying out complicated calculations turned them into valuable tools. At the beginning of the 90’s, it became obvious that they would be useful in other fields, and they spread to other areas. Their numbers, though, were still small. The very same Institute of Chemistry that today has hundreds of PCs used to have practically just one on each floor. Their usage was restricted, too. Some people thought the computer was just an instrument to produce texts, a replacement for the typewriter.

A more dramatic transition happened when the computer was seen as a tool for information, besides being a tool for texts or for calculations”, says Chaimovich. “The evolution of the web has been fantastic”, USP’s deputy rector states. “The quantity of available information has changed, and the way how this information is accessed has also changed”, he went on. “Thanks, in part, to FAPESP’s investments, their focus on infrastructure for information technology and their general attitude to research, USP has adapted itself to this technological change”, he added.

For Chaimovich, though, this was just part of the picture. “The other part, which was also FAPESP’s responsibility, was to put into operation a few distinct types of bibliographical searches using the web, which permits a change in the way that scientific information is sought”, he points out. This, for example, is the case of the Web of Science, a database of the Institute for Scientific Information, made available to researchers in São Paulo, which allows them on-line access to unabridged texts from scientific publications by the major international publishers, and of the Electronic Library Program (ProBe), which has about a thousand international scientific publications available. This is how the researcher is inserted into the context of the world-wide web for knowledge.

Changing science
Setting up and expanding the networks has also made room for large projects of a cooperative nature, involving researchers at various locations and from various disciplines, like the Genome-FAPESP and Biota programs. “The Genome Program is all based on the virtual web”, comments Imre Simon, who teaches at the Department of Computing Sciences of USP’s Institute of Mathematics and Statistics and presided the university’s central commission for Information Technology from 1994 to 1998. “Without this network, there wouldn’t be the slightest chance of doing this cooperative sequencing”, he claims.

For Simon, “the world is on the way towards a reality in which all the sciences will depend, in a fundamental way, on computing techniques”. Information Technology , he says, has become an essential ingredient for any science, and it is changing science in a global manner. “Enormous quantities of data are being produced. Chewing, digesting and transforming all this data into information and into knowledge is only possible with the use of computers.”

The big networks for specific programs like Genome-FAPESP and Biota, as well as those that involve, simultaneously, scientists from several countries, are getting a lot of attention from the media and sometimes overshadow other aspects of the question. But the effect of installing networks can be perceived in all areas of research, such as Medicine, and it reaches even teaching itself, by opening up new prospects for distant learning.

The starting point

The implementation of local or corporate networks linking laboratories, colleges of São Paulo public universities and research institutes got started in 1996. But these local networks are all connected with ANSP – Academic Network at São Paulo, a network created and managed by FAPESP, which links the academic computer networks and those of research institutes and centers in São Paulo to each other, and to Brazil and abroad. ANSP is the route for connecting to the Internet for all the institutes linked to the Science and Technology System of the State of São Paulo.

The ANSP Network started to be designed in 1987 and was inaugurated in August 1988. It was the first Brazilian network to be integrated with the Internet, in 1991. With this connection, ANSP set up international access not only for the research centers of São Paulo, but also for the institutions connected to Rede Nacional de Pesquisa – the National Research Network, created in 1989 by the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) to link up the academic networks in the states.