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WWW as a Strategic Tool in Research and Teaching of Molecular Sciences
Henry S Rzepa
The World-Wide Web has its origins in promoting information exchange
amongst the high energy physics community, but was rapidly adopted by
molecular scientists, often before it was adopted by computer centres and
support staff, and has now achieved a productive maturity in this area.
During the period 1993-5, amongst the many accomplishments by UK
scientists that can be listed are:
- An on-line Protein Structure Course, involving around 40
"consultants" and in excess of 100 registered students.
- The Seminal work at Sheffield University relating to the Periodic table.
- Chemistry and Biology Workshops organised at the first WWW
meeting at CERN by UK scientists.
- Involvement by UK scientists in the First International Chemistry
- Conference based around WWW and E-mail, held during November
- The planning of a UK mainstream chemistry conference using WWW
and based around the "Young Chemists Committee", in collaboration
with the Society for Chemical Industry.
- A formal proposal to the IETF for appropriate chemical MIME types to
be used with WWW, with further approaches to the IUPAC
- An expression of interest under the FIGIT initiative to publish a
chemistry journal, in collaboration with the Royal Society of
- The start of a Global Instructional Chemistry initiative, illustrated by
the integration of WWW technologies into teaching courses at
- The appearance of two scholarly refereed papers in mainstream
chemistry journals describing applications of WWW to the science,
and the production of a major book on applications of the Internet to
chemistry, to be published by the American Chemical Society.
- Invitations to UK scientists to give keynote talks in American and
Europe on their WWW accomplishments.
In formulating institutional guidelines we have to create an environment
where individual efforts by such scientists are not stifled by excessive
centralised regulation and control, yet one in which the essential generic
tools are well supported. We also have to plan how to react to the trends
already visible at the Second WWW meeting in Chicago toward the
commercialisation of WWW. At this meeting, one left with a feeling that
the interests of science in particular and teaching in general are not at the
top of the priority tree for commercial developers, and we are reaching the
end of the road where hitherto immensely successful "spare time"
departmental enthusiasts can exist in isolation. An efficient and
permanent support infra-structure is essential. I would nevertheless argue
strongly that such support structure should belong within individual
departments as well as within a centralised support service. Experience has
shown us that intimate subject knowledge is essential for innovation and
that effective communication with subject experts is essential for progress.
Many issues will need to be addressed in the near future. These include
- Developing support infra-structure for Uniform Resource Names, for
which standards are slowly emerging. As with DNS names, a central
support service appears essential.
- Furthering the HTML dtd into versions 3 and 4, and in particular
acquiring and/or developing appropriate parsing and setting tools
which may not become immediately available from commercial
sources. The BBEdit tools developed at York by Lindsay Davies are a
shining example of such support.
- Developing the relationship between SGML, HTML and scholarly
publishing, and ensuring effective liaison with appropriate FIGIT
- Evaluating successor or alternative systems such as document cluster
browsers (Hyper-G) and virtual reality browsers implementing VRML.
The chemists are indeed at the forefront of such areas, being particular
active in virtual reality applications and the emerging field of
chemistry collaborators. Here, the SuperJANET network will have a
major role to play.
- Implementing Z39.50 aware and other robust indexing and searching
systems, with particular regard to more specialist subject disciplines.
For example, FreeWAIS-SF is a highly cus-tomisable indexing system
for which specific configurations for specialist groups will need to be
developed. In this category also fall tools for integrating mail and
World-Wide Web, such as Hypermail. This utility currently does not
support MIME enclosures and has not been developed for Indexing.
- Supporting scholarly journals in molecular science via local and
central library activities. Again, subject interests will be paramount,
and it will be essential to involve active academics in such
- A major growth area is envisaged for Internet "robots" which are sent
out with specific tasks to perform. Many of these tasks will be subject
specific, and such agents will need involvement from academics.
- Preparing publicity material for subject disciplines. Many practising
scientists are not familiar with these areas, and they will want
promotional material that has a strong subject content before they will
come to accept this technology.
- Promoting the role of learned societies and industry is essential, and
much still needs to be done to develop these links. Such links are again
best fostered within departments by individuals.
In conclusion, I strongly believe that the development of World-Wide
Web as a Strategic tool in UK higher education must be a collaborative
venture between support agencies and academic departments. In
particular, the consultative procedures between the two must be robust
enough that duplication of effort is minimised and that key enthusiasts in
departments feel appropriately consulted and supported.