NIPped in the Bud

Only someone stuck in a Jerusalem office who hasn't been to a university in recent years could make a decision that effectively means canceling the NIP, which has become as basic to scientific academic research as a test-tube is for a chemist.

The steering committee overseeing the implementation of the National Internet Project (NIP), also known as Internet 2 in Israel, recently decided not to allocate $3.5 million to operate the network. Thus, the committee, which includes representatives from the Education, Communications, Science, Industry and Finance ministries, as well as from the universities, has doomed the project, which will now shut down in 2003. The committee's decision, backed by treasury arguments that "the project failed" gives new meaning to the term "folly," and will yet be discovered to be one of the most destructive decisions ever taken for Israeli education.

Internet 2 is part of an American-European project meant to advance academic research, by allocating particularly large bandwidth for Internet connections between research institutes and private technology companies. Among the activities planned exclusively for the this network are the use of online supercomputers in distant research centers, private technology company access to university infrastructure, and the use of university databases by schools far from the center of the country, in distance (remote) learning.

In 1998, the government decided to allocate $40 million for the project over four years, with 45 percent of the funding from the government and 55 percent from the universities. But since the project began operating, the government cut the budget for developing new applications for the network, even though much of the investment monies for the project came from the U.S. and Europe. In effect, only half the money designated for the Internet 2 project was ever used.

In February this year, contacts began between the Education Ministry, the Science Ministry and the universities with the goal of enabling financing for the National Internet Project after 2002. Last month, it turned out, the contacts failed because some of the ministries, including the treasury, opposed continuing the project. Thus, NIP was frozen in transition from a temporary experimental stage to a permanent national project.

From the beginning, Israel's investment in the project was ridiculously low. Terena, the organization of academic research network users in Europe, said at the beginning of this year that Israel's investment in the network, 3 million euros in 2002, was the lowest of all European investments. Even Greece and Hungary invested more in building the infrastructure. Holland invested 11 times as much as Israel, Italy 23 times as much and Britain 28 times as much.

NIP had three main goals: to enable Israeli researchers to participate in international projects in physics, mathematics and other sciences through the broadband network; to enable high-tech companies to develop applications that would turn into commercial applications for the Internet in another 5-10 years; and to develop an online educational avenue that would enable students outside the center of the country to connect through the network to learning centers, giving them access to university databases and other resources.

The state's decision to cancel the project means only one thing: It is giving up three top social-technology priorities - scientific academic research, developments that put Israel in the front line of new technology, and advanced education. The universities, for their part, decided not to give up their use of the network for research and continued funding their part of the project - 55 percent. That means the network will only serve them. But then the government proved its chutzpa even further. The steering committee decided that since the state invested in the network, the universities have to to pay for their continued use of the NIP infrastructure.

There's no reason to be amazed that the decision was made in complete contravention of the recommendations made by a special examiners committee, headed by Ben-Gurion Meltzer, who were asked to check NIP and report on its progress. The committee wrote that in the past Israel pioneered international integration in the scientific age and was one of the leading countries when it came to filling the NIP with content. Now it has fallen far behind the advanced countries. The report pointed out that every European country has a NIP. Greece, for example, is spending 10 million euros a year and its communications network is 15 times faster than Internet 2 in Israel.

Only someone stuck in a Jerusalem office who hasn't been to a university in recent years could make a decision that effectively means canceling the NIP, which has become as basic to scientific academic research as a test-tube is for a chemist. Israel's relative advantage as a country able to produce first-rate scientists is being rapidly eroded because there's not enough money to run the network and because clerks make decisions against the recommendations of the expert committees. Despite this, nobody in the government is pounding on the table, nobody is explaining why a $3.5 million investment today could save a $3.5 billion in another decade when we wake up to find that we are in the ranks of the most backward countries in the world.