The emergence of the "infobahn" has widened the separation of the physical sciences into those connected and those excluded from the electronic information and idea exchanges. High-energy physics, an important engine driving the development of computer-mediated telecommunications, transacts most of its business over the international nets, thus excluding anyone without access. This gives rise to a disturbing question: is the world being deprived of the contributions of an undiscovered Abdus Salam? The vitality of the international scientific enterprise is dependent upon open access and free communication. Indeed, the information networks were largely built and maintained by and for scientists.
Throughout the world, national governments, regional authorities, learned societies, universities, foundations, users groups and extragovernmental organizations have scrambled to find the means to both accelerate technological implementation and to widen access. But in many ways, the common interest is dissipated in competitive, incoherent programs. The unprecedented development of the Internet in the US was accelerated when academic and scientific users were given subsidized access. Yet today, government authorities the world over are threatening to cut off that access in a headlong rush to exploit commercial applications. In Russia, only those few groups with proprietary connections to land lines or satellite ground stations have reasonable, if impeded, access. And while the International Science Foundation and the United Nations are attempting to set up pilot network projects for scientific and academic users, their success is threatened by uncooperative government agencies and commercial interests. In China, the academic and research communities are virtually excluded from the high-capacity optical cables connecting with Japan. And, in fact, access for Chinese academic users are currently restricted to two 64 kb lines, one of which is fed by a 256 kb ground station, and most university users are limited to dial-up connections.
Thus for many potential users, the network connections are tenuous or nonexistent, largely restricted to store-and-forward protocols. World-Wide-Web and even Gopher are beyond the pale for most users outside the industrial Northern Hemisphere (also for many users within Europe and the US).
Enter the Scientific Community and the UN:
In December, 1994, UNESCO Director General, Federico Mayor, established the Physics Action Council to broaden the world physics enterprise to include the widest participation of the world's physical scientists. To pursue this goal, working groups were set up to open the major international laboratories to qualified scientists, to widen access to telecommunications and to design programs to improve education. The working group on networking and telecommunications has been examining ways to support and integrate the efforts of others: the ISF and UN in Ukraine and Russia, the OSA in Latin America, bilateral programs in China and elsewhere in Asia, and--most important--the exploitation of the many programs and activities of users groups and learned societies.
At a meeting in Paris in January of this year, the working group on networking and telecommunications examined the status of regional programs and sought to refine its role in marshaling resources and defining the priorities of the physics community. A first step has been to encourage the UNESCO Director General to appeal to the member states to assure scientific and academic access to the networks. Resources are being sought to support the training of networking specialists in the fSU and elsewhere. Learned society contacts have been encouraged such as between the Chinese and American Physical Societies whereby bulletin board exchanges have been set up to facilitate coordination on joint collaborations. The group will also assist UNESCO in the planning for a major international conference to be convened in 1996.