Networking at NSF

Leaders at the National Science Foundation have decided that the best way to support research and technological development at universities nationwide is to apply information technology at home.

The agency has projects under way that are designed to make business more efficient and life easier for NSF staff.

Because a priority for NSF is soliciting and reviewing proposals for academic research grants, making life easier at NSF includes:

    * Automating the proposal and grant process (see related story).

    * Bringing together experts from remote locations to review and discuss proposals.

To facilitate a meeting of the minds, NSF director Rita Colwell is pushing a cutting-edge videoconferencing capability at several agency sites.

A videoconferencing facility has been available at NSF headquarters in Arlington, Va., for a few years. But this year, Linda Massaro, NSF's chief information officer and director of information and resource management, said she hopes to add a connection to a high-speed network, such as the MCI WorldCom-managed Very high-speed Backbone Network Service (vBNS), that would allow the agency to experiment with Internet videoconferencing.

Videoconferencing facilities are available at NSF sites in Arlington, Tokyo, Paris and Antarctica. Some of the earliest users were the National Science Board, panels of proposal review teams and officials conducting job interviews with prospective NSF employees in Europe or Australia, said Neville Withington, leader of the innovations team in NSF's systems automation branch.

The headquarters facility is equipped with a top-of-the-line PictureTel Corp. Concorde system and an Integrated Services Digital Network connection that offers users up to 24 channels to dial into a conference. Users typically occupy six channels with a 384 kilobits/sec connection, Withington said. A multipoint bridge allows up to eight participants to dial in simultaneously.

The facility also has a document camera that operates like a projector to allow conferees to share slides or documents, and it has the capability to show videos. The room is wired to allow attendees to plug in their laptop computers and connect to the Internet.

"We look to videoconferencing as a way to stretch our travel dollars," Massaro said. NSF spends about $4 million in travel annually. The videoconferencing equipment was purchased over several years, and the recurring costs of maintenance and upgrades are far less than the cost of travel, she said.

Experimenting with high-speed networks is the key to making it more practical to use Internet videoconferencing on the U.S. research networks, Withington said. Internet videoconferencing will lower the cost and open up the capability to more participants.

Granting Wishes

The agency also is moving toward electronic business processes that take the repetitive data entry tasks out of the proposal submission and award process. NSF's FastLane system is intended to achieve a paperless proposal process by October, Massaro said.

Grants increasingly are becoming a focus of government procurement systems, said Chip Mather, senior vice president of Acquisition Solutions Inc., a federal procurement consulting company. As vendors and agencies realize how much money is awarded in grants, it is more important to have systems designed to account for them, he said. In addition, NSF's videoconferencing is a model for applying existing information technology to a particular business case, he said.

"It's a great example of taking fairly proven technology and applying it to your situation and getting good productivity," Mather said.

The director's support for such proj-ects will allow NSF to compete for top-notch employees and make the agency more efficient, Massaro said. The ultimate outcome will be new developments and research that benefit the nation.

And that's not all. With an IT budget of $16 million for fiscal 2000 and a small IT staff, NSF is also tackling several other initiatives aimed at updating internal systems used by NSF staff, such as payroll, financial management and telephone systems.

Massaro has appointed a group to monitor new technology and make recommendations about what the agency should purchase. NSF tries to buy in increments to spread out the technology refreshment cycle, she said.

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