The following text is copyright 1998 by Network World, permission is hearby given for reproduction, as long as attribution is given and this notice is included.

The need to support failure

By Scott Bradner

This column is being written on a Saturday afternoon in San Francisco where I'm waiting for the University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development (UCAID) member meeting to start. UCAID, better known by the name of one of its projects, Internet 2, is meeting here to bring its members up to date on the many projects that are now under way. UCAID's basic mission is to help facilitate the development of the next generation of Internet applications. ( In addition, using Project Abilene -- a nation-wide very high speed network that will soon interconnect many U.S. higher education institutions -- UCAID will create a proof-of-concept network that will support the emerging quality of service and multicast technologies.

UCAID and projects, including Project Abilene, are funded by its member institutions along with support from many of the major high technology firms, particularly including the support that Qwest, Cisco Systems and Nortel are providing for project Abilene. There is no direct U.S. governmental funding going into any of these activities. Instead the U.S. government activities in this general area include projects such as the Very High-Speed Backbone Network Service (vBNS) and the High Performance Connections Program, both funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF -

UCAID represents exactly the kind of private support for continuing development that the U.S. government hopes for when it provides support for basic research. The university and commercial sectors follow the governmental support with their own funds to further develop the technologies that started under the government research grants. Governments invested a few hundred million dollars into the Internet. That investment plus a few billion from universities and corporations has produced an infrastructure worth hundreds of billions of dollars per year and which is doubling every few months.

Success stories like the Internet are a good thing but we should remember to remember all of the history.

Corporations around the world provide significant support to university researchers to help them develop technologies which could be of use to the corporations in the future. UCAID's Project Abilene is only one of the more visible of the current projects -- things tend to be somewhat visible when the U.S. Vice President is on hand to announce the start of the project. But this support tends to be late in the game. By that I mean that corporations tend to support technologies that are getting close to mature. They can not generally afford to provide early support for early technologies that may fail.

Supporting failure, which I admit sounds funny, is a good role for government. Venture capitalists assume a significant failure rate among the start-ups they fund but they generally only fund ideas well past the research stage. Someone needs to be ready to fund the ideas that may fail. The lesson of history is that we very much need the government to keep funding early research and it can not back off just because the private sector is funding projects like Abilene.

disclaimer: Failure & Harvard does not parse as a concept and the above are my own ramblings.