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October 20, 2006

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Welcome to the October 20, 2006 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE:

 

Officials Probe Possible Theft of Voting Software in MD
Washington Post (10/20/06) P. B1; Barr, Cameron

A former Maryland legislator this week received three disks that contain voting software developed by Diebold Election Systems, although what version and how secure the files are is debated. The disks were delivered anonymously to the office of Cheryl C. Kagan, with an unsigned letter that referred to the disks as "right from SBE (State Board of Elections)" and "accidentally picked up." The theft is being looked into by the FBI, although both Diebold and the State Board of Elections claim that they never had such disks. Diebold's Mark Radke says no software on the disks is used in Maryland, but the version of one program on the disks remains in use in "a limited number of jurisdictions," and is properly encrypted. The two programs, for which the disks are labeled as "source code," are: Ballot Station, the operation that controls the touch-screen voting machines, and Global Election Management System (GEMS), which is used in the process of tabulating votes after an election. Avi Rubin, a computer scientist at John Hopkins University as well as an election expert who is very skeptical of e-voting, was given a copy of the disks to research, on the condition he would not make copies. Of the disks' content, he said, "I would be stunned if it's not real." A graduate student at John Hopkins working with Rubin, Sam Small, claimed that the version of Ballot Station on the disks "was consistent with what we've seen previously." He was unable to gain access to the GEMS software, however, because two of the disks were protected by a password. Radke points out that new security features have been implemented on versions released since those on the disks, and "it would take years for a knowledgeable scientist" just to get past the encryption on the disks sent to Kagan. However, Rubin says that on the disks he reviewed, "the data and files were not encrypted." For information on ACM's many e-voting activities, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm
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Carnegie Mellon Awarded Defense Grant to Improve Chip-Making Process for Industry
Carnegie Mellon News (10/19/06)

DARPA has awarded Carnegie Mellon University a six-year, $4.2 million grant to develop a new breed of reconfigurable integrated circuit for chip manufacturers. Ed Schlesinger, center director and head of Carnegie Mellon's Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, says new nanoscale chips and architectures will be designed that are intelligent enough to fix themselves. The Center for Memory and Intensive Self Configuring Integrated Circuits (MISC IC) will undertake this effort to overcome the bottleneck resulting from the present trends of building components smaller and smaller that increases cost of production, by integrating mechanical probes with integrated circuits in a design that allows for the reconfiguration of integrated circuits. Carnegie Mellon researchers expect to develop new materials and circuit configurations to increase performance without scaling down transistor size. "The physical reorganization of the chip itself will drive many changes in both hardware and software development," says Schlesinger. A circuit that can reconfigure itself creates the possibility of economically building intricate systems and stepping-up the performance of application-specific integrated circuits at the low cost that is now so endemic to the production of more general purpose integrated circuits, says the researchers. Schlesinger says, "Our new collaborative center will help create the underlying technology that could help change the integrated circuit paradigm and sustain momentum in the $227 billion global chip sector for years."
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44th Design Automation Conference Adds New "Wild and Crazy Ideas" Track and Automotive Electronics Theme
Business Wire (10/18/06)

A new "Wild and Crazy Ideas" (WACI) track at the 44th Design Automation Conference (DAC) will give developers, designers, researchers, and engineers an opportunity to present their innovative ideas that are still in their early stages. DAC technical papers usually focus on a fully developed idea and include a complete solution. Next year's conference will have a special Automotive Electronics theme, and is seeking papers that address the issues and challenges involving the integration of advanced consumer electronic devices, such as navigation, entertainment, and safety systems. "We are excited to provide a forum for the truly revolutionary and controversial ideas at the 44th DAC with this new WACI track," says Sachin Sapatnekar, technical program co-chair of the upcoming conference. "In addition, we expect the Automotive Electronics theme to highlight a critical application area for integrated systems today and bring new insights for our attendees." ACM's Special Interest Group on Design Automation (ACM/SIGDA) is a sponsor of the conference, which is scheduled for June 4-8, 2007, at the San Diego Convention Center in San Diego. Authors have until Nov. 20 to electronically submit papers to the DAC Web site. For more information on DAC 2007, visit http://www.dac.com/44th/index.html
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Negative Images Sap Math Test Score
Baltimore Sun (10/20/06) P. 1A; Emery, Chris

Simply telling women they are deficient in math skills can hurt their performance on a math test, suggests a new study. Steven Heine, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia and one of the report's authors, says, "The results don't speak to whether there is a real difference [between men and women], but show that just discussing it might make a difference." For the study, when told that their inferiority in math is genetic, women scored worse on math tests than when they were told that their lack of success is a result of teacher bias. "It urges scientists to be mindful about how their work is being communicated," says Heine. Ashley Grenier, a first-year graduate student in engineering at the University of Maryland, says that people are overly congratulatory of her when they hear she is studying engineering, as compared to the more modest excitement shown when they hear her younger brother in studying in the same field. "People definitely see you differently," she says. Women do seem to shy away from math and engineering in college; of students earning undergraduate degrees in engineering, about 20 percent and female, and less than 40 percent of students receiving bachelor's degrees in math, in the same year, were female, according to the National Science Foundation. Schools are making efforts to attract more girls towards science and engineering by portraying the field as a way to help people. The Clark School of Engineering at the University of Maryland conducts an outreach program for Girl Scouts that is focused on applications and that allows them to "learn what [they] can do to help people," according to Page Smith, the director of the school's Women in Engineering Program. She also says that Maryland focuses on middle-school aged girls because this is where interest in math starts to wane, not their ability.
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First Demonstration of Working Invisibility Cloak
Duke University News & Communications (10/20/06)

Duke University researchers have demonstrated the first working invisibility cloak. The technology works by deflecting microwave beams so that they flow around a 'hidden' object, creating the illusion that nothing is there at all, not even a shadow. The researchers claim that this "cloaking," which renders material invisible to microwaves, could be applied to wireless communications or radar appliances. The cloak is made of concentric circles composed of "metamaterials," artificial composites that can be made to interact with electromagnetic waves in ways that natural materials cannot. The Duke researchers say their work in invisibility, which has the potential to hide objects of any size or material property, is the most comprehensive ever to be realized. In the past, invisibility techniques could only apply to material with very limited properties. David Schurig, a research associate in Duke's electrical and computer engineering department explains that, "One first imagines a distortion in space similar to what would occur when pushing a pointed object through a piece of cloth, distorting, but not breaking, any threads. In such a space, light or other electromagnetic waves could be confined to the warped 'threads' and therefore could not interact with, or 'see', objects placed inside the resulting hole." Since space cannot easily be warped, this technology uses electromagnetic fields and the right materials to achieve the same effect. "The waves' motion is similar to river water flowing around a smooth rock," Schurig says.
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New Laws and Machines May Spell Voting Woes
New York Times (10/19/06) P. A1; Urbina, Ian

As the election date nears, officials nationwide are preparing for a potentially turbulent day that will test various elements of the election system. Fears range from databases not including registered voters, to machines that provide no paper verification, to poll workers who are inadequately trained. Some officials and vendors of voting machines have gone to colleges to recruit computer science graduate students or even posted listings on Monster.com in an attempt to make sure adequate technicians are in place on election day to help see that everything runs smoothly. The combination of new machines and people who are unfamiliar with them worries many. Wendy S. Noren, the top election official for Boone County, Mo., is behind in both delivery of machines and staff training. About half of the 45 most highly contested elections will use machines that provide no paper verification, which does nothing to help feelings of uneasiness. Deborah L. Markowitz, president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, thinks that since this is not a presidential election and many voters are being encouraged to mail in their votes, that problems will be kept to a minimum, although the worry exists that many legitimate voters will be turned away due to database inconsistencies, which persist after four years of struggling to correct them. Wake County, N.C., which uses optical scan machines, experienced technical failures in this year's primaries, but at least those machines provide a paper ballot that can still be counted. Hotlines fielding problems and providing information to voters received about 200,000 calls in 2004, reporting over 40,000 problems. Charles Stewart, head of the political science department at MIT, has published a study claiming that from 2000 to 2004, the number of improperly marked ballots was reduced by about one million. Many echo his feeling that voting problems always occur, and in this time of new technology they are simply highlighted to a greater degree. For more inforamtion about voter registration databases, read ACM's recent report at http://www.acm.org/usacm/VRD
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New Course Aims to Get Students Thinking About Using Web 2.0 in the Corporate World
InformationWeek (10/18/06) McGee, Marianne Kolbasuk

The University of Arizona and IBM have created a course for the school's management information systems and marketing students designed to get students thinking about the value of Web 2.0 skills. Although many people of this age are familiar with Web 2.0, seeing it as a job skill is quite rare. "A lot of companies are stuck in their thinking about the Web," says Andrea Winkler, early outreach coordinator and Web administrator at the University of Arizona's Eller College of Management who also teaches the new course. "Many look at Web 2.0 for only a small population of their customers, but with some tweaking, customization, and new ideas, these technologies can help them reach a much bigger population." IBM's Gina Poole says one of the goals of the program is to reinvigorate excitement for technology students. Projects for students in the Arizona class include constructing online community sites for local high school students, helping teach university students the hands-on skills needed to deliver a product, and inspiring thinking as to other ways Web 2.0 skills can be valuable. Students graduating college with Web 2.0 skills will encounter substantial employment opportunities, says analyst Stephen O'Grady. "A lot of startups out there are hiring for these positions, as well as bigger players like the Googles and IBMs," he says. O'Grady also predicts that more enterprise-type business will soon see the need for these skills as well. "Most technologies start out in businesses and then trickle out to consumers. This is one of the more rare reverse examples." The value of Web 2.0 abilities are not lost on those above college-age. Diane Anderson, 47, is taking the class as part of her double major in business management and MIS. "I get the sense that most non-tech companies aren't yet using Web 2.0 technologies to their advantage," she says.
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Situated Technologies Focus of Symposium
University at Buffalo Reporter (10/19/06) Vol. 38, No. 8, Donova, Patricia

A symposium this weekend in New York City will address both how and what technologies are now embedded in the manmade landscape, and what the broad implications of these are for human interaction with their environment and with one another. Omar Kahn, assistant professor of architecture and co-director of the Center for Virtual Architecture (CVA) in the school of Architecture and Planning, the Institute for Distributed Creativity, and the Architectural League of New York, says that portable computing devices, from cell phones to iPods, currently take center stage, but the new breed of "ubiquitous computers go beyond that. They are about mobility." He says, "They network a vast array of data to automatically take into account the social dimension of human environments, even as they vanish into the background." Buildings themselves will have the ability to respond to environmental conditions as a result of new situated technologies, according to Kahn. The symposium, entitled "Situated technologies and Architecture," will discuss how such developments change functions and activities in urban settings, and how urbanism will respond to the developments. Mark Sheppard, assistant professor of architecture and media study at the University at Buffalo, focuses on the disembodying effects that recent technology has had on human interaction. "New embedded technologies could actually enhance and promote social interaction by connecting individuals in new and socially functional ways," he says. "However, we must learn how to influence the design of the technologies and structures in which they are embedded so as to reclaim the primacy of an embodied experience." The symposium also will discuss who decides who has access to what information, and what intentions lie behind the creation of such advanced systems.
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Microsoft Looks Within to Design and Test Chips
New York Times (10/19/06) P. C3; Markoff, John

As the computing era marked by its collaboration with Intel comes to a close, Microsoft is turning to its own labs to create the computer chips of the future. "We are at an inflection point in the industry," says Microsoft's Charles P. Thacker, the engineer leading the Silicon Valley-based research group, who was instrumental in single-chip designs after working for Xerox in the 1970s. "Our friends say computers are not going to get faster, we're just going to get more of them," referring to the facts that multiple processors can now be placed on a single chip, and computing functions are becoming more hidden in devices used by ordinary consumers. Microsoft looks to have a competitive advantage in the parallel computing field, where controlling both hardware and software, and the way they interact is extremely valuable. A new system designed by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, allows developers to reconfigure computer designs without having to go through the trouble of producing finished microchips. Berkeley computer scientist and former ACM president David A. Patterson says, "This is a historic time in the computer industry. We're in the middle of a revolutionary change toward parallel computing that will absolutely involve both hardware and software." Microsoft's Xbox has spurred a lot of thinking about the next generation of computer design, and the use of voice recognition, of which Thacker says, "Voice is big. You can throw as much technology at it as you want to." What Thacker does see as a perpetual problem is the disconnect between designers and their customers: "It's pretty hard for a geek to internalize the experience of an ordinary user."
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Business Leaders Call for Science Degrees to Be Free
Guardian Unlimited (UK) (10/19/06) Andalo, Debbia

Pressure is being put on the British government to do something about the declining number of students entering the field of science, technology engineering, and maths (STEM). A joint report by the Conservation of British Industry (CBI) and the IT company LogicaCMG suggests abolishing, or at least reducing, the level of tuition for undergraduate STEM students in order to boost the number of students pursuing IT careers. The university administration service, Ucas, reports a 25 percent drop in students choosing math and computer science degrees between 2002 and 2005. The report also requests a greater level of coordination between universities and the IT sector to ensure relevancy of instruction, along with a new IT vocational program aimed at 14- to 19-year-olds, beginning in 2008. Expansion of the "visiting lecturers" program, where IT professionals are brought in to teach courses, is also suggested. "The world is on the brink of a third industrial revolution...the UK must ensure that it has the skills needed to fill the jobs going offshore. Now more than ever before, the government must equip young people with the right skills in science, technology, engineering, and math," says CBI general director Richard Lambert.
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By George! How One Robot Got Smart
IST Results (10/19/06)

An award winning aivatar (AI avatar) named George displays the bright future for such chatbots on the Internet. Currently, George has a 3D appearance, a variety of facial expressions, and the ability to understand and respond to others using speech, thanks to AI developed by Televirtual programmer Rollo Carpenter. George is able to learn from every conversation he has, and as a result of interacting with so many people, 10 million conversations so far, he is a "bit of a wild animal" displaying remarkable fluctuation of mood and aggressiveness, says Televirtual's Tim Child. George has learned over 40 languages from his chat-room experience. Web users can speak to George, using text only, at jabberwacky.com, where he is chatting with over a million people at any given time. A talking version will probably released to the public in the near future, although he already won the Loebner Prize for most human-like chatbot in 2005. Three IST projects contributed to the technology George runs on: ViSiCAST, which explored the use of avatar technology to communicate with hearing impaired people through sign language; MYTHE, which combined the use of populated virtual settings and interactive-computer characters with experimental linguistic tools to help children learn foreign languages; and CHARISMATIC, which developed tools to create large-scale virtual environments with avatars capable of simple interaction. Another, more advanced aivatar, Joan, is in the works, with several other commercial aivatars planned for different Web services around the world in the coming months. Child says that one future application of these chatbots could be language learning.
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'DNA Computer' Is Unbeatable at Tic-Tac-Toe
New Scientist (10/16/06)

A computer known as Maya-II has learned how to play tic-tac-toe using strands of DNA to execute calculations. The computer was developed by researchers at Columbia University and New Mexico University to identify genetic markers linked to certain diseases. Using a system of DNA logic gates, a strand of DNA that binds to another specific input sequence, the computer is able to decide upon its every move. To play against Maya-II, the human player must enter a DNA sequence corresponding to the move they wish to make. Each of the nine wells making up the tic-tac-toe board corresponds to several DNA logic gates. After the human's turn, the strand that Maya-II outputs is then fed into a series of other DNA logic gates linking the wells, and the square it chooses for its next move glows fluorescent green, as well as interacting with the remaining wells, preparing them to be ready to respond to future moves. Maya-II must always begin the game by taking the middle square on the board, it needs between 2 and 30 minutes to decide on each of its moves, and a second machine is required to translate the fluorescent signals into a specific move. Joanne Macdonald, a researcher at Columbia University who worked on the system, says Maya-II "moves bio-computation up to the next level of power. It's similar to the invention of the first microchips with hundreds of logic gates." She says Maya-II could be used to improve techniques for examining DNA samples, and currently she has utilized it to separate viruses and detect particular combinations of DNA mutations.
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Picking Out Digital Image Forgeries
Network World (10/17/06) Kabay, M.E.

Micah Kimo Johnson has developed tools that can help forensic analysts detect digital image forgeries. On October 6, Johnson gave a presentation entitled "Lighting and Optical Tools for Digital Image Forensics." The three techniques he described were illumination direction, specularity, and chromatic aberration. Illumination direction analyzes light sources in a photograph, using a mathematical approach devised by Johnson. The system can calculate the angle of incident light based on the shadows in a picture and recognize any inconsistencies. This software has been successfully built and tested. The specularity tool he is working on looks at reflective highlights in images. The example used to display this system was a picture from "American Idol," in which two contestants had been digitally imposed. He showed that the reflective parts of the photo, such as the eyes, revealed a single light source in the eyes of some people pictured and two light sources in others. The algorithm and program are still in the works for this technology. Finally, chromatic aberration uses the principles of a camera lens and Snell's law. The tool examines the natural distortion of a picture caused by a camera lens. If this distortion is not consistent throughout, then the image is most likely forged. Johnson is still perfecting this technology. While none of these tools is 100 percent effective on its own, when the three are used in concert with forensic analysis they contribute a great deal to investigations and verifications of forged images.
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Research Investigates Human Interaction With Machines
Computerworld Australia (10/18/06) Rossi, Sandra

A research project known as Braccetto, Italian for "arm-in-arm," aims to improve the ability of humans to interact with information, with each other, and with their environment, using the effective application of technology. The project, a result of joint research between the National ICT Australia (NICTA), the Defense Science and Technology Organization (DSTO), and the CSIRO, is an investigation into how the effective application of ICT in mixed presence groupware can help teams that are geographically separated communicate more efficiently. A collaboration with Jumbo Vision attempting to develop interactive workspaces yielded a modular system using HD LCD screens. The system allows screens, cameras, and lighting operated by computer-driven motors to be configured in various ways to provide adaptive conditions for collaboration. The system, known as Braccetto TeamNets, includes hardware, software, and knowledge systems that can be tailored to a team's needs. The project may produce innovative techniques to support distributed teams involved in creative activities such as collaborative design, planning, analysis, and decision making, in fields such as military planning, scientific researchers, and creative design. "The research focuses on assisting organizations to effectively deal with emerging phenomena such as global networks, workforce visualization, and data overload by giving information workers new tools and processes," says Dr. Rudi Vernik, the research director for the initiative. Braccetto was unveiled October 17, 2006, at the ICT Outlook Forum in Melbourne.
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W3C Launches Secure Browsing Initiative
Business Wire (10/17/06)

The success of the Workshop on Usability and Transparency of Web Authentication has led the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) to charter the Web Security Context Working Group, a new initiative to devise standards for browsers in an effort to help people decide whether a site is trustworthy. The March workshop, which drew many big technology and online finance companies as participants, showed W3C that there is considerable interest in secure interfaces. W3C expects to attract browser vendors, security experts, research institutes, financial institutions, and end users to the group. W3C says the group will also work with organizations such as IETF, OASIS, and Liberty Alliance. Mary Ellen Zurko of IBM will head the group, which will focus on the information browsers need to provide in order to describe the security context, presenting the information and raising awareness, and improving browsers so they are able to guard against being spoofed. "When I'm browsing the Web, I want my browser to help me understand who really is the owner of a Web page," says Tim Berners-Lee, director of W3C. "There is much deployed and proven security technology, but we now need to connect it all the way through to the Web user."
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Doing Composite Applications Right
eWeek (10/16/06) Vol. 23, No. 41, P. D6; Sippl, Roger

Above All Software Chairman Roger Sippl defines a composite application as the combination of functionality from multiple applications and systems into a single interface in which "the source and underlying complexity of where all the information resides remains transparent to the user." He offers a list of 10 rules for building and implementing composite applications. Sippl advises developers to comprehensively exploit all information assets, including the underlying metadata particular to each system, and to responsively contend with new information assets without revising the entire application and workflow. Addressing semantic issues, deploying composite applications according to the target audience's specific requirements, and accelerating time to market are also recommended. Sippl says developers should practice caution and not move data if they do not have to, a strategy that avoids uncontrolled data redundancy. He also calls for the establishment of practical application building blocks or "business services" that are designed for reuse and integration, and that business owners can comprehend and work with. Sippl says working with metadata as opposed to the data layer guarantees the flexibility of the application, while complying with all built-in application and system security mechanisms while maintaining a transparent security infrastructure is vital. His final piece of advice for developers is to ensure that the composite applications align with the service-oriented architecture: "They must interoperate with the other key elements of your infrastructure or else you're likely creating more silos," Sippl concludes.
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The Sharpest Tools in the Shed
SD Times (10/01/06)No. 159, P. 38; Morales, Alexandra Weber

Non-IT tools such as sticky notes and index cards are enjoying more use among agile software development teams than their high-tech counterparts. "I think that tools are of little importance in terms of having a successful implementation of an agile process," maintains Lincoln Financial Group application architect Jon Kurz. "The focus should be on the process itself. For example, regardless of the size of the team or the technologies used, it is important to have a solid source code management process." Author Scott Ambler's March 2006 Agile Adoption Rate Survey of around 4,200 developers found that Extreme Programming (XP) and Scrum were the most popular agile methods used by the 41 percent who had adopted such techniques; XP features many paper-tracked engineering and scope-defining practices. Ambler notes that "Many traditional development tools reflect the mindset that specialists hand off work to one another in a nearly serial manner, whereas agile tools reflect the mindset that developers are 'generalizing specialists' working in an iterative manner." Portfolio management tools can be very useful in moving agility upward in the IT domain.
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Where Has the Money Gone? Declining Industrial Support of Academic R&D
National Science Foundation (09/06) Rapoport, Alan I.

U.S. industry's flow of research and development funding into academia has declined over the last several years, a trend that suggests a shift in the sectors' relationship. Since peaking in 2001 with $2.2 billion, industrial support of academic R&D has fallen 5.1 percent to $2.1 billion in 2004, while the share of industrial academic R&D support fell from 7.4 percent to 4.9 percent between 1999 and 2004. Between 1993 and 2004, the distribution of industrial R&D support to academia grew more concentrated at institutions that were research-intensive, with the 200 leading universities and colleges accounting for roughly 95 percent to 96 percent of total R&D and around 93 percent to 94 percent of industry R&D support. However, between 1993 and 2004 the percentage of industry funds received by the top 100 institutions increased from 74 percent to 76 percent, while industry funds for institutions that ranked between 101 and 200 fell from 20 percent to 17 percent. Distribution of total R&D funds between these two groups from 1993 to 2004 remained consistent. In that same period, the number of public institutions receiving industry support experienced a slight increase, while the number of private institutions receiving such support suffered a slight decrease; fewer than 70 percent of private institutions get industrial R&D support, versus nearly 80 percent of public institutions. The steady increase in the percentage of all academic articles with an industry co-author between 1993 and 2001 was followed by a decline in both 2002 and 2003, a further indication of a falling off in industry-university collaboration. Another possible sign of this trend is less citations of U.S. science and engineering articles in U.S. industrial patents, while patents awarded to U.S. academic institutions slipped and then plateaued in 2002 and 2003 after a climb between 1993 and 1999.
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Dying for Data
IEEE Spectrum (10/06) Vol. 43, No. 10, P. 22; Charette, Robert N.

The under-utilization of computers in medicine can mean the difference between life and death for patients, but a comprehensive electronic health records system could be rolled out in the United States within 10 years, mainly through a private sector initiative that is partly sponsored by the federal government. The U.S. National Health Information Network (NHIN) will be comprised of numerous regional networks that are independently maintained, and among its potential benefits are a greater concentration on preventive care, lower health care costs, and an easier way to perform epidemiological studies. There is universal agreement that the first step in developing such a system is to establish an accepted series of data standards that enable electronic records to be shared easily and securely by different systems; then software and databases that are compliant with those standards must be designed. The NHIN effort is an enormous challenge that requires the participation of all hospitals, pharmacies, nursing homes, and doctors who belong to individual or small group practices, and it will be difficult to persuade hospitals short of cash to pay millions for computers, networks, software, and consultation services. Privacy and security issues will also need to be addressed, since the NHIN is supposed to be universally accessible. The cost of the NHIN is expected to be higher than estimated in several studies, while the network's savings are expected to be lower due to the fact that the analyses are based primarily on expert opinions but little hard data. There must be financial support for small practices to embrace automated medical records if the NHIN is to become more than a pipe dream, according to internal medicine specialist Richard Baron of Philadelphia.
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