WASHINGTON -Alvin Thaler of the National Science Foundation thinks scientists should not have to play elaborately boring games on their computers to be able to ex change information with their colleagues. A new $2 million program within the Foundation's Office of Information Systems holds out the eventual hope of permitting the free and easy exchange of data that is supposed to be the hallmark of science.
The first step is called EXPRES, which stands for EXPerimental Research in Electronic Submission. It tackles the more than 18 million sheets of paper consumed each year in grant applications to the Foundation. As Thaler noted, "There was something bizarre about the quantities of paper we were being engulfed in."
This month the University of Michigan and Carnegie-Mellon University were selected to con-duct demonstration projects to ease that burden. Both universities are also centers for the supercomputer network that the Science Foundation has established at six sites around the country. The key to the new system will be its ability to transmit compound documents that include such material as graphs, photographs and diagrams
along with words.
Because each step of the process will be electronic rather than manual, the pilot projects are expected to handle the grant applications procedure much more quickly than is now the case.
The grant will not pay for the purchase or upgrading of hardware. But it will pay the cost of managing research groups, visits to federal telecommunications workshops, studies of what scientists need from the computers, and the publication and dissemination of results.
Search for Unity
But EXPRES is really just a first step toward a truly national scientific research network. The goal is to make it possible for scientists to avoid the present Tower of Babel of standards that exists for computer networks.
There are two chief contenders for a universal grammar. The most successful to date is the group of transmission procedures developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. These protocols have enabled the Defense Department to send compound documents throughout the world.
The second contender is the International Standards Organization protocols. The National Bureau of Standards thinks that the Pentagon should begin to use this system, and private industry has convinced the bureau to go ahead with a new Graphics Kernel System that manufacturers and the Department of Energy will be adopting during the next decade.
The Pentagon has stuck to its own protocols despite the efforts of the Corporation for Open Systems. The Vienna, Va., company, which represents the $80 billion stake that private industry has in the creation of international standards, has been trying to choose acceptable subgroups for the many international symbols. Many of the symbols relate to a particular lan-guage or discipline, and finding a universal core group is expected to take several years. "We can't even agree with the Europeans on how to spell 'standardization,' " joked Howard Berkowitz, a senior technical advisor for the corporation.
The foundation is already spending $3 million annually on an effort "to reduce the functional specifications of a telecommunications system component to a circuit layout on a chip." Success in this project, being undertaken by the Center for Telecommunications at Columbia University, would go a long way to-ward uniting the international community of scientists.
Jonathan McVity is a freelance writer and cybernetic music researcher.