State budget threatens collaboration

A proposed Wisconsin budget would bar state universities from sharing data through a high-speed network.

Tia Ghose
Jun 15, 2011

Capitol Building, Madison, WisconsinRYANWICK VIA FLICKR

A bill currently awaiting approval by Wisconsin's legislature could jeopardize data-intensive research projects at the University of Wisconsin by effectively forcing the school to withdraw from high-speed networks, such as Internet2, that link universities around the world.

“Virtually all our science-based traffic...flows through that network, so it would be catastrophic,” said Paul DeLuca, the provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

One project at risk is the Protein Structure Initiative, which collects and shares x-ray crystallography and protein structure data among over a dozen institutions. The National Institutes of Health, which funds the project, requires participating universities to share data with researchers at other institutions, said Brian Fox, a biochemist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and head of the Transmembrane Protein Center.  If the law passes, the state university could be restricted from holding up...

Similarly, Timothy Donohue, a bacteriologist and head of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, relies on the high-speed network to share data on the development of cellulosic biofuels between the University of Wisconsin and other participating institutions nationwide. The center’s $25 million annual grant from the Department of Energy requires that researchers transfer terabytes of data on plant genomes, microbial enzyme activity, and gene activation to several other institutions. Without access to high-speed networks, such data transfer would be impossible, he said.

The legislation also threatens the University of Wisconsin's involvement in a non-profit cooperative known as WiscNet, which provides high speed internet to public universities, most libraries and K-12 schools in the state. Lobbyists for the telecommunications industry have said that WiscNet is being subsidized by the University of Wisconsin, making it difficult for private internet providers to compete. But if the University of Wisconsin-Madison was barred from using WiscNet, it could pay up to four times as much with private providers, said Terry Millar, vice-chancellor of research at the university and a mathematician who has collaborated with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland on data-intensive projects.

The restrictions appeared in the bill last week while in the hands of the legislature’s joint finance committee. No on knows who initially proposed the provisions, but they took almost everyone by surprise, DeLuca said. “Very likely, it is an unintended consequence and whoever put it in the budget actually didn’t realize the implications of what they were doing,” he said.

Still, high-speed data sharing may yet get an eleventh hour reprieve. Late Tuesday (June 14), legislators crafted an amendment that would allow the University of Wisconsin to remain part of WiscNet until 2013, during which time the program would be audited to see how it operates. Furthermore, the final budget has yet to be approved, but lawmakers are planning to vote on it today (June 15).