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Ushering in the Information Age

50 Years of Supporting Science

Established in 1950, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is the federal government's only agency dedicated to the support of education and fundamental research in all scientific and engineering disciplines. NSF's mission is to ensure that the United States maintains leadership in scientific and engineering disciplines, in scientific discovery, and in the development of new technologies. NSF has achieved this mission repeatedly over the past 50 years.

This series of articles highlights key advances in science and engineering enabled by NSF support that have had a beneficial impact on humankind. This article looks at the agency's role in a broad issue that has taken on increasing significance in recent years.

For more information on the NSF go to www.nsf.gov

This advertorial appears as part of a long-standing partnership between NSF and Discover Magazine. We encourage you to visit Discover Magazine at www.discover.com.

To most individuals, information technology means the Internet. Certainly NSF has made, and continues to make, major contributions to the development of this 21st century mode of communication. The agency has also supported significant efforts to make digital information more powerful and useful for research and commerce. These advances have benefited science, engineering, medicine, education, and many other sectors.

CAD/CAM; caption is below.
CAD/CAM has revolutionized many manufacturing
processes in the U.S., allowing designers to use three-dimensional computer geometric models
of parts needed to be produced.

The Internet started in the late 60's when the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency developed ARPANET technology to link up networks of computers, and thus make it possible to share the information they contained. During the 1980s, NSF invested about $10 million per year which motivated others (universities, states, private sector) to spend as much as $100 million per year to develop and support a dramatic expansion of the original ARPANET. The NSFNET that resulted gave U.S. universities a nationwide, high-speed communications backbone for exchanging information. The network initially served academic researchers, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies. To meet a new demand for commercial Internet services, in 1991 NSF decided to allow for-profit traffic over the network. During the next four years, NSFNET was privatized and became the global Internet we know today.

Research supported by NSF created the "killer application" credited with sparking the recent Internet explosion. Web browsers that permit users to navigate through the World Wide Web grew out of Mosaic, developed at NSF's supercomputing center at the University of Illinois. Mosaic made the Web user-friendly, with point-and-click navigation and rich content such as graphics, animation, and sound.

The Internet's remarkable success has a down side: slowdowns and information bottlenecks became more common. The scientific community realized that the world would soon need a better, faster Internet system. So in 1995, in collaboration with telecommunications company MCI, NSF launched a very high speed Backbone Network System (vBNS). With vBNS, researchers could send data equivalent to 46 copies of a 300-page book across the system every single second. This backbone formed the key component of the Next Generation Internet (NGI), a program run by several government agencies that made the Internet more powerful for scientific users.

To address the same needs internationally, NSF funded STARTAP (Science, Technology and Research Transit Access Point). This project, operated by Ameritech Advanced Data Systems in Chicago, permits Internet service providers from several different countries to exchange research-related communications traffic while bypassing congestion on the commercial Internet.

NSF's support of information technology doesn't end with the Internet. The agency supports several projects designed to make information technology of all types more accessible to a wider range of users.

Every time you listen to a compact disc, for example, you hear the result of research funded in part by NSF. In 1960, Irving Reed and Gustave Solomon of M.I.T.'s Lincoln Laboratory devised a fundamental method of correcting the errors that inevitably occur when information is transmitted at high speed. Adapted by Elwyn Berlekamp, an NSF-supported professor at the University of California, Berkeley, the Reed-Solomon codes have since formed the basis for tasks as diverse as transmitting stunningly accurate pictures of distant planets and obtaining studio-quality music from scratched compact discs.

Some NSF support has brought the revolution in information technology to specific segments of the general public. Project Listen, for example, developed at Carnegie Mellon University, helps elementary school students and non-readers to learn both to read and to pronounce words correctly. A computer monitors a student reading out loud. When it hears a mispronounced word, it offers a clue to the correct pronunciation, such a rhyming word.

Individuals with disabilities have also benefited from research supported by NSF. The Web Accessibility Initiative is a collection of technologies that permits people with disabilities to use the Internet as effectively as those without. For example, sound prompts can help the poorly sighted to navigate their way through web sites with a high graphic content.

A particular example is the Darci card, a device no larger than a playing card that permits physically disabled individuals to control their computers in several different ways, including breath control, head-mounted light sensors, and joysticks activated by a foot or an elbow. Research backed by NSF has made the cards smaller, more usable, and more compatible with computer systems.

In recent years, industry has benefited significantly from computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM), which allow designers to use computer graphics to create geometric models of parts they want to produce. NSF first supported research in that area at Carnegie Mellon University and other academic institutions in the early 1970s. This support has continued as CAD/CAM grew in importance. Among CAD/CAM's tangible results: assembly of the complete Boeing 777 aircraft by computer before a single part was made. And computer visualization techniques such as graphics, animation, and virtual reality, also developed with NSF support, permit several users, from surgeons to meteorologists, to simulate and solve problems that they encounter in their working lives.

Environment Nanotechnology Astronomy Info.Tech. Education Biocomplexity
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Last Modified: Mar 28, '03