MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology
Cambridge, CB2 2QH England
v: (0223) 248 011
f: (0223) 213 556
Research, academic; Library
Innovative or improved ways of doing things; Leverage of public funding
I am an American postdoctoral worker at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in England. I regularly use the electronic mail and file transfer facilities of the Internet to exchange protein structure information with fellow researchers around the world.
My work requires me to deal with long lists of three-dimensional coordinates. In the distant past (i.e., ~10 years ago) before I arrived at the laboratory this information was exchanged through postal shipments of magnetic tape, a process that takes about a week. When I arrived at the Laboratory about 4 years ago, electronic mail over the JANET network was in use. This provided a vast improvement in speed and allowed the data to be transmitted without physical media. However, because a mail message from, say, the UK to the US had to cross network boundaries, it still could take up to a day for a long coordinate set to reach its destination.
In 1992 our laboratory was fully connected to the world-wide Internet. The most obvious benefit was that I could mail coordinates in seconds. On a more important level, this quantitative speedup lead to a qualitative change in my communication patterns. Previous I always communicated in the conventional sender-recipient pattern of electronic mail. Now instead of e-mail I get my data through using ftp and gopher to interact with on-line libraries, such as the protein data bank at Brookhaven National Laboratory. This allows me to use someone else’s data without my having to know or communicate beforehand with the person. Since data retrieval is now so easy it is not necessary to keep copies of all the information pertinent to a given project on site.
Many of the improved ways of doing things evident in my story will be present in countless stories told by American researchers working in American laboratories. However, my story is somewhat unique since I am reporting these developments from outside the US. I am, therefore, in a position to say that the European scientists that I work appreciate the benefits of the Internet. Furthermore, they regard the Internet as fundamentally an American innovation. >From an often politically critical people, it is thought of as a worthwhile investment by the American government.
Thus, on an international level, the Internet functions as an ambassador of goodwill for the US. As the Internet is centered on the US, it encourages foreign researchers to contact and collaborate with their counterparts in the US. On a more subtle level, the worldwide acceptance of the Internet encourages the use of English as the international language of science. It also promotes the adoption of American standards and the purchase of American computer equipment.