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2 November 2007
Royal request for time to kick-start Mediterranean e-infrastructures
HRH Princess of Jordan Sumaya Bint Al Hassan (seated, front right) joined other VIP speakers and an invited audience at the EUMED Event in Brussels, 23-24 October.

HRH Princess of Jordan Sumaya Bint Al Hassan added her voice to calls for a continuation of European funding support for vital Mediterranean e-infrastructures, during last week's EUMED Event. The event, held in Brussels 23-24 October, brought together VIP speakers and an invited audience from around Europe and the Mediterranean region.

Almost 90 politicians, network operators, users, civil servants, and managers of national research and education networks came from more than 15 countries to discuss collaborations in e-infrastructures and networking for research and education.

Sustainability was the recurring concern of the event, with many questions about long-term support for projects that have been established across the Mediterranean region in recent years.

The first half day of the meeting focused on access to research infrastructures in the Mediterranean region and strategies for the future, while the second, full day took policy agendas as its theme.

Users and applications

In addition to an analysis of telecoms markets and regulations, the first session saw an overview of several projects that directly relate to users.

Michele Bianco of the European Genetics Foundation gave an introduction to the MedGeNet project, which promotes advanced training for the implementation of genetics in medicine. This was followed by an overview of the EUMEDGRID initiative and some of the varied projects it serves, presented by Federico Ruggieri of the Italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN).

According to Federico Ruggieri, the EUMEDGRID team is currently “in the process of developing standards” to allow maximum interoperability between networks, Grids and services in different countries. And he described how, by providing access to laboratories that are not otherwise available, Grids can “help prevent brain drain” – another factor that’s important for sustainable growth of research and education networks in the region.In the immediate future EUMEDGRID’s European funding ends this year so its own sustainability is currently an issue.

Positive plans

The way ahead was considered with an explanation of medium term plans to evolve network connectivity in the Arab States through the Network Access Points (NAP) initiative. The following panel discussion revealed that several companies in the telecommunications and networking sector are very interested in the commercial potential of research and education networks in the Mediterranean region.

Jean-Marc Uzé of Juniper Networks said, “this is an emerging market for us and there is some direct business impact in working in such a project” as EUMEDCONNECT, which provides a dedicated IP network for use by the Mediterranean region’s research and education communities. “The other major interest is in collaborating with this community,” he added.

Digital divide

During the second day, several speakers presented overviews of the status of e-infrastructures in their countries. These included dignitaries and ministers from a number of countries currently benefitting from European-supported e-infrastructures, including the Princess of Jordan, Dr. Najib Abdul Wahed of Syria and Mr. Mashour Abudaka of Palestine.

Representatives of the European Commission also emphasised the importance of building on recent achievements.

One of the challenges is the ‘digital divide’, with great disparities between different countries in levels of connectivity, services and pricing. This was highlighted by two consecutive presentations; one on the SESAME project which is expected to produce petabytes (1015 bytes) of data each year from 2010, and one on the Syrian Virtual University which today copes with a few Kilobytes of Internet capacity and is often crippled by simple power failures.

Funding fears

Following a session on national research and education networks (NRENs) and how they fit into the picture, a panel discussion highlighted how essential EUMEDCONNECT and other projects have been and remain in the development of national e-infrastructures in various Mediterranean countries.

The issue of funding surfaced, with some pessimism from members of the audience that the Mediterranean region may be “losing what we have built in the last two years”.

Today EUMEDCONNECT is the principal e-infrastructure in the Mediterranean. It supports the vital communication needs of over 100 projects, including many receiving European funding support, but its EC funding ends this year and its future is not yet assured.

Michele Bianco of MedGenNet summed up what a break in funds means for users with the comment that, “connectivity is like oxygen; no-one would ask a research centre to stop breathing for a couple of months” until money can be found again. “Giving money to connectivity means giving money to the people. There is no development without connectivity today.”

Redouane Merrouch of the Moroccan NREN, MARWAN, said, “what we would like is to get to a position where the EC need not support these projects in the very long run, but now we need a second step to consolidate the foundations”.

A united look forward

HRH Princess of Jordan Sumaya Bint Al Hassan praised the “gifted human resources” in the southern Mediterranean region and reminded participants that historically these peoples have contributed greatly to mathematics and science. “Give us more time and help us to kick-start again,’ she said.

These sentiments were strongly shared by the European and Mediterranean research and education communities which had come together for this special event.

Finally, Mario Campolargo of the EC urged the EUMED Event participants to “get your countries united in their support” for a continuation of connectivity between Europe and the Mediterranean region. “We have to share a cake,” he said, “but let’s not share a small cake. Let’s work to get a big cake to share with our researchers.”

Further Information

The EUMED Event was organised under the patronage of the European Commission and was hosted by three sponsoring projects that foster the creation of e-infrastructures in the Mediterranean region: EUMEDCONNECT, EUMEDGRID, and the Development Support Activity of GÉANT2. The EUMEDGRID portion of the funds is mainly provided by GRNET.

More information about these projects, plus details of the EUMED Event, available presentation slides and further information can be found on the EUMED Event website.

Photos of many speakers are also available.