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Executive Summary Information technology the set of computer and telecommunications technologies that makes possible computation, communication, and the storage and retrieval of information has changed the conduct of scientific, engineering, and clinical research. This report examines present trends, future potential, and impediments to the use of information technology in support of research. Written from the viewpoint of the researcher using information tech- nology and including many examples, the report offers a number of recommen- dations directed to two principal audiences: policymakers and leaders of institutions responsible for the support and management of research, and researchers themselves. The first programmable, electronic, digital computer was created nearly five decades ago. At first, computers simply substituted for other means of carrying out arithmetic calculations; they were large, expensive, often unreliable, and accessible only to a minority of scientists and engineers. With the advent of the integrated circuit (the semiconductor "chip"), computational speed and power increased dramatically, and computer use became widespread. Recently, com- puter technology has been joined with telecommunications technology to create a new entity: information technology, which has done much to remove the constraints of speed, cost, and distance from the researcher. On the whole, information technology has led to improvements in research. New avenues for scientific exploration have opened. Researchers can collaborate more widely and efficiently. Much more data are available for analysis. Analytic capabilities have improved significantly, along with the capability to present results as visual images. New information technologies offer further opportunities to improve research. But widespread use of computers in research has not come about without problems. Some of these difficulties are technological, some financial. Underlying many of them are complex institutional and behavioral constraints. 1
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2 INFORMATION The report examines three aspects of the research process: data collection and TECHNOLOGY AD analysis, communication and collaboration among researchers, and information THE CONDUCT storage and retrieval. OF RESEARCH In data collection and analysis, a number of trends are discussed, including · Growth in the amount of information researchers can store and analyze; · Creation of new families of computer-controlled instruments; · Proliferation of computer networks dedicated to research; and · Increasing availability of software "packages" supporting research activities. Among the difficulties associated with data collection and analysis are uneven access to computing resources, problems in obtaining support for software development and maintenance, and unnecessary complexities of transmitting data over computer networks. Communication and collaboration among researchers are changing. Not only can information be shared more and more quickly, but researchers are also developing new collaborative arrangements. Three technologies are involved: word processing, electronic mail, and computer communications networks. Word processing and electronic mail are arguably the most pervasive of all the routine uses of computers in research communication. Electronic mail-sending text from one computer user to another over the networks is partially replacing written and telephone communication among many communities of scientists. Scientists increasingly use networks for conversation and for repeated exchanges of text and data files. Among the most important of the potential applications of information technology is the emergence of a truly national research network. The principal difficulties with communicating via electronic mail and file transfer technologies involve incompatibility between different text and data processing systems and between network protocols. Also significant are network limitations: addressing conventions are cumbersome and unhelpful, locator services are nearly nonexistent, and overall network availability and reliability need improvement. Electronic storage and retrieval of information hold enormous advantages: information can be stored economically, found quickly without going to another location, and moved easily. For all disciplines, both scientific data and reference databases promise to be significant sources of knowledge for basic research. However, a number of problems need to be resolved. Researchers have difficulty getting access to data stored by other researchers. Even when researchers get access to colleagues' data, they have difficulty reading them. Finally, when researchers get access to and read each others' databases, they often lack information on the quality of the data. The primary difficulty encountered with reference databases is in conducting searches. Most information searches at present are incomplete, cumbersome, inefficient, expensive, and executable only by specialists. There is a pressing need for new, more compact, and more permanent forms of data storage. Stored data gradually become useless, either because the storage media decay or the storage technology itself becomes obsolete. Underlying
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3 difficulties in information storage and retrieval are significant problems in the institutional management of resources. New computer-based technologies offer the prospect of new ways of finding, understanding, storing, and communicating information, and should increase both the capabilities and the productivity of researchers. Among these new technologies are simulations, new methods of presenting observational and computational results as visual images, the use of knowledge-based systems as "intelligent assistants," and more flexible and intuitive ways for people to interact with, and control, computers. The Panel has identified a number of problem areas in which institutional and behavioral impediments underlie many difficulties in the use of information technology in research. These areas include ~ Issues of costs and cost sharing: financial impediments are chronic. A1- though institutions will continue to do their best, information technology for research will continue to need more funds. The Panel believes that increased support of information technology in research deserves high priority. · The problem of standards: simplified, consistent standards for operation of, and interconnection among, computer systems could have major impacts on research communications and productivity; however, such standards are largely absent, and their development is a slow and controversial process. · Legal and ethical constraints: the need to safeguard and maintain confiden- tiality of data on human subjects is a major issue; also likely to become increasingly significant is the question of responsibility in computer-supported decision making in engineering, clinical practice, or research. · Gaps in training and education: learning to use information technology presently requires significant initial investments of time and effort, and research- ers who make these investments often receive insufficient help. Although the problem is likely to diminish with time, it affects current attitudes of many researchers toward the use of information technology. · The perceived risks of organizational change: organizations and administra- tors can understandably be reluctant to make the substantial changes required to make use of information technology. · Of fundamental importance, the lack of an infrastructure for the use of information technology in research: access to expertise, and support mecha nisms to encourage such experts; tools for developing and managing software; systems for storing and retrieving information; and support services for commu- nication and collaboration among researchers. The report concludes with three major recommendations. RECOMMENDATION I The institutions supporting the nation's researchers must recognize and meet their responsibilities to develop and support policies, services, and standards EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
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4 INFORMATION that help researchers use information technology more widely and productively. TECHNOLOGY AND Specifically THE CONDUCT OF RESEARCH ~ Universities should provide accessible, expert help in learning and using information technology. · University departments, and scientific and professional groups, should estab lish career ladders for scientific programming positions. · Funding agencies should provide support for scientific programming and for help services in learning and using information technology systems for research. · Scientific associations should establish disciplinary standards for the storage and indexing of scientific data. · University departments, and scientific and professional groups, should im plement mechanisms for the evaluation, merit (peer) review, and dissemination of software useful in the conduct of research. · Vendors, in collaboration with scientific groups, should establish standards for simplified and consistent user-machine interfaces. · Network administrators should provide simple user interfaces and address ing schemes, add gateways to other networks, improve system reliability and capacity, and provide online help, such as guides to services and mail addresses of individuals who can answer questions. · Information service providers should create simplified common standards for accessing and querying information sources and eventually provide unified access to information. · Software vendors, and scientific and professional groups, should create program libraries and make them accessible through the networks. RECOMMENDATION II The institutions supporting the nation's researchers, led by the federal government, should develop an interconnected national information technology network for use by all qualified researchers. Specifically · The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in the Executive Office of the President, and the federal agencies responsible for supporting and perform ing research and development, should plan and fund a nationwide infrastructure for computer-based research communication. · Planning and development of this nationwide infrastructure should be guided by users of information technology in research, rather than by technical experts in information technology or hardware or software vendors. The Panel believes strongly that such a national network is too important to the future of research to be left only to the technical experts. · The national research network should be founded on the fundamental premise of open access to all qualified researchers/scholars that has nurtured the world's scientific community for centuries.
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5 · The national research network should be developed in an evolutionary manner, making full use of the existing successful networks for research. RECOMMENDATION III To facilitate implementation of Recommendations I and II, and to focus attention on the opportunities and impediments associated with research uses of information technology, the Panel recommends the establishment at a national level of a user's group to oversee and advise on the evolution and use of information technology in support of scientific, engineering, and clinical re- search. Specifically, the National Research Council (NRC) should charge a standing committee or board (whether existing or newly created) with the mandate to oversee and advise on research use of information technology. The membership of this board should include a majority of users from a variety of research disciplines. EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
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Representative terms from entire chapter: