The coronavirus outbreak of 2020 has changed every aspect of our lives. The ramifications for the future leave us with more questions than answers. But in the face of the questions, geopolitical obstacles, differing models and predictions, there is a complete consensus that our future is dependent upon two things: The development, manufacture and global delivery of a COVID-19 vaccination on a global scale and the need for effective treatment modalities.
This mission requires scientific collaboration on an unprecedented scale, and the platforms and infrastructure to support it. Not just for COVID-19, but to be better prepared for future outbreaks of other novel viruses as well.
For Israel’s academic community, the current crisis called for massive reorganization at breakneck speed as it erupted before the Spring holidays.
Israel’s institutions of higher learning pivoted at nearly a moment’s notice to online learning. MEITAL, the Inter-University Center for E-Learning, deployed technological support for institutions, closing license agreements for synchronized systems for 25 higher educational institutions, including ZOOM licenses for more than 28,000 lecturers, online transcription and accessibility solutions, online testing and storage systems for asynchronous viewing.
Alongside this, queries in MEITAL’s professional WhatsApp groups and forums to keep users up to date and offer tips and best practices increased significantly. In the techno-pedagogical area, MEITAL delivered 15 multi-participant online learning sessions for tech teams and academic lecturers. The sessions were led by online learning and teaching experts from academic institutions across the country, and presented models of online instruction and methods to make materials accessible for faculty and lecturers.
Another research challenge that is dependent upon inter-university economies of scale and cooperation is the need to provide open and free access to resource and reference materials to ensure ongoing and uninterrupted research.
Many publishers and content providers made their content available for free to assist the many students, faculty, and researchers who are working and studying remotely while campuses were closed. This includes not only specific content about COVID-19 research, but also general content from a wide variety of resources including journals, eBooks, videos and courseware. MALMAD, the Inter-University Center for Digital Information Services, approached many of these publishers for special expanded access for its member institutions and prepared a regularly updated resource on complimentary expanded access offered by publishers.
None of these activities would have been possible without Israel’s National Research and Education Network, operated by IUCC. Supporting this massive transition to distance learning requires foolproof, resilient and reliable network infrastructure. Israel’s National Research and Education Network (NREN) provides the critical connectivity to a global network of interconnected networks. This not only supports demand peaks from remote learning; it also is vital to support peaks in demand for international capacity which was desperately needed in the scientific and research response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
The entire design of the IUCC’s network is to be over-engineered. Commercial ISPs engineer their networks to maximize profits. Israel’s academic network connects via GÉANT, which interconnects Europe’s national research and education networking organizations with high bandwidth, high speed and highly resilient backbone, connecting researchers, academics and students to each other, and linking them to over half the countries in the world.
IUCC’s network enjoys link upgrades when demand exceed 60%, versus commercial ISPs that maintain networks at 95% capacity to maximize profits. The GÉANT network is built to handle sudden and unexpected traffic peaks – exactly the kind of peaks that can happen in the midst of global pandemic. Researchers racing to find a cure need unparalleled bandwidth. IUCC, supported by the GÉANT’s backbone, is there to provide that bandwidth and non-stop connectivity without any bottlenecks as opposed to commercial ISPs which experienced serious issues during the crisis.
In recent years, IUCC and our partners in GÉANT have been working on the Global Research and Education Network initiative, known as the GNA. This initiative aims to better align resources and make the interconnections more efficient for science collaborations and education globally and to ensure universities and research institutes across six continents have the robust, resilient and low latency connectivity they need now and into the future.
After the initial crisis is over, or managed, many unanswered questions will remain with us and no small amount of uncertainty. Exit strategies are a unique mixture of trial and error in uncharted territory. The crisis has brought to light weak links in healthcare policy and preparedness, and we are all hopeful these will be corrected. But alongside this uncertainty, the crisis highlighted the power of ingenuity, creativity and collaboration that keeps Israeli academic research at such a high level. Experts recognize that the need to invest in maintaining and upgrading this infrastructure is vital. In Israel, we must ensure that the level of collaborative, inter-university excellence in network and support infrastructures remains a national priority, to ensure our researchers continue to contribute to healing the world – from COVID-19 and to mitigate the threats of pandemics in the future.
The writer is the CEO of IUCC – The Inter-University Computation Center.