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Briefings

By David Brindley

Protecting Research Data

University researchers, beware: Your academic freedom may be in jeopardy. So believes Congressman George Brown (D-CA), who recently introduced legislation to repeal a law that gives public access to higher education research data.Illustration by John Ceballos

Brown's bill is in response to an obscure amendment slipped into the 1999 budget bill last October that requires all federal agencies that give grants to researchers "to ensure that all data produced under an award will be made available to the public through the procedures established under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)."

The new research-reporting law, opponents argue, could lead to the premature release of data, and even threatens the freedom to conduct research in sensitive fields.

Brown, the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Science and a civil engineer, introduced H.R. 88 in January to repeal the research-reporting law, and has received bipartisan support and the backing of many research organizations.

"This provision poses a major threat to academic freedom in the United States," Brown explains. "Since its enactment, we have heard from scientists who have been harassed by tobacco companies, large corporations, and law firms, all seeking the researcher's data. The provision makes scientists fair game for lawsuits, and threatens academic freedom and the confidentiality of research subjects."

Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, concurs: "Frequent FOIA requests for data by particular interest groups and individuals might even be used as an effective means to discourage certain research, attack ongoing research, or delay the publication of research results," Alberts says.

In response to the outcry against the new law, in February the Office of Management and Budget, which is saddled with carrying out the law's provisions, proposed a change to the law's requirements. The revision would shift responsibility for responding to FOIA requests from academic institutions to the federal agency that gave the grant.

Since federal agencies are not required to disclose certain sensitive information, the shift would shield researchers from releasing some data. For example, information relating to intellectual property-a key issue for computer engineers-may be protected under the proposed revision because trade secrets fall under the FOIA exemptions.

But Alberts is not convinced that the revision will be a panacea. "Even if the exemptions do apply, they are seriously inadequate for protecting the legitimate interest of federal research grantees," he says.

The Brown bill is currently in committee.

Microsoft Takes on Asian Pirates

Illustration by Ralph Butler The world's largest software company is adopting a hardline stance against theft in one of its biggest markets. Microsoft has declared war on software pirates in Asia: putting a bounty on the thieves, offering cash rewards to informants, and encouraging governments to help root out unauthorized users.

In Thailand, Microsoft will pay up to $6,850 to anyone who identifies sellers of pirated software. And in Malaysia, the company encourages government agencies to conduct raids of offices suspected of using pirated software. In return, it will "donate Microsoft software, training, and support to charitable organizations from the proceeds of successful enforcement actions," explains Marti Casey, an international corporate issues specialist at Microsoft.

The stakes are high. The Business Software Alliance (BSA), a software-publishing trade group, estimates that piracy losses in the Asia/Pacific region alone amounted to more than $3.9 billion in lost revenue in 1997, the latest year for which figures are available. In some Asian countries more than nine out of 10 businesses use illegal software, the BSA estimates.

Microsoft is a major target for software pirates, industry experts say, because it dominates operating system and office software products. And in Asia especially, the economic crisis and lax copyright enforcement make anti-piracy efforts even more challenging.

"In the Far East and Asia," Casey says, "Microsoft works with the BSA and the other member companies to aggressively reduce software piracy through education, awareness, and public policy." Oh, and don't forget the cash incentives.

Big Bucks for Chip Research

Electrical engineering and computer science programs nationwide got some chipper news recently: The U.S. semiconductor industry has pledged more than $600 million over the next decade to fund cutting-edge research projects at leading universities.

The aim of the new research initiative, called the Focus Center Research Program, is to draw on electrical engineering and computer science research programs at leading universities to help resolve some of the more perplexing problems in semiconductor design, such as reducing chip size while expanding capacity.

"We are aligning ourselves with the best researchers and the best universities in the country to overcome the technology barriers of the future," explains Craig Barrett, president and CEO of Intel Corp. and the head of the Semiconductor Industry Association's Technology Committee.

Six focus centers in all will be created under the program-the first two at the University of California at Berkeley and the Georgia Institute of Technology. The Berkeley center will focus on software programs used to create and test chips, and Georgia Tech will conduct research on the wiring that connects the millions of transistors on a microchip.

"This program will help keep our country, economy, and industry strong," Barrett noted.

Engineers, Start Your Engines!

Photos courtesy of UnC-Charlotte Josh Watkins knows a lot about racing cars. While growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, he worked with his father on a number of Winston Cup race teams and spent countless weekends at local race tracks. He's even driven some cars to the finish line.

Now a mechanical engineering sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Watkins is putting his experience to work for him-and for his school-in a new college sport: auto racing.

Engineering schools at six southeastern universities formed the Intercollegiate Auto Racing Association (ICAR) two years ago as a way to allow students interested in auto racing to compete against each other. The 49ers, UNC-Charlotte's racing team, will compete this year against student teams from Duke University, the University of Virginia, the University of South Carolina, North Carolina A&T, and North Carolina State University.Photos courtesy of UnC-Charlotte

Hopping behind the wheel of a race car and zooming to the finish line is exhilarating for the full-time engineering students, but collegiate auto racing also provides valuable engineering experience.

Team members work together from beginning to end in designing, building, maintaining, and racing five-eighths scale models of 1930s Fords and Chevys. The autos, called Legends cars, are equipped with Yamaha motorcycle engines that produce speeds of up to 100 miles per hour. In competitions, drivers from each college race side by side down tracks up to three-eighths of a mile long.

"Racing is great fun, but it's also a lot of work," says Robert Johnson, chair of UNC-Charlotte's mechanical engineering and engineering science department. "Students have to set up the cars to run on different tracks and to do that they have to understand vehicle dynamics and analyzing data."

Photos courtesy of UnC-CharlotteAt UNC-Charlotte, the dozen racing team members must first be accepted to the motorsports engineering program, a special concentration in the engineering program that focuses on automotive design. They then learn how to use sophisticated tools, such as a computerized diagnostic system that measures everything from the car's aerodynamics to how students handle the car in races. Motorsports students also do internships with local racing teams, which opens the door for future employment in the increasingly popular field.

And not surprisingly, the experience leads some students to appreciate their engineering education.

Watkins, who came to UNC-Charlotte to "learn the technical and engineering aspects of racing," says that his experiences as crew chief during a summer internship "have given me more focus in my studies and made me aware of what I need to learn in school."

That focus will also come in handy this spring as the 49ers defend the ICAR championship. When the green flag waves, these college gearheads will literally push the pedal to the metal.

Measuring IT's Budget Bite

Are colleges paying too much for computers and support services?

That's the question David Smallen, director of information-technology services at Hamilton College, and Karen Leach, chief information officer for Colgate University, asked several years ago. But when they couldn't find any comparative data on the subject, they decided to find out for themselves.

Since then, more than 100 institutions have participated in Leach and Smallen's periodic surveys, known as The Cost Project, and now colleges can determine if they are spending more, or less, than other schools. For example, the most recent survey results show that the annual cost for network services and Internet access ranges from $148 to $381 per computer, with the median at $255.

The survey also found that by relying on outside companies to handle some computer repairs, a college could cut its per-computer support costs by 40 percent. In addition, the survey revealed that colleges that use both Macintosh and PC hardware don't necessarily pay more for computer support, as was previously assumed.

Data on technology costs is vital, Smallen says, "for senior finance officials at academic institutions to get a handle on information technology budgets." But to encourage greater participation and a larger sampling, only those institutions that answer the surveys receive the full results. "The response has been good so far," Smallen says, "but the survey represents only a small percentage of the 3,000 academic institutions in the country."

More information on how to participate in the survey, along with summaries of the findings, is available through The Cost Project home page at
www.its.colgate.edu/kleach/costs/costs.htm

Deans Honor Livingston

Robert Livingston (R-LA) may be gone from the House of Representatives, but for ASEE and the engineering community, he is not forgotten. In a February 9 Capitol Hill ceremony, the Engineering Deans Council presented Livingston with an award of appreciation for his "outstanding leadership of the House Appropriations Committee on behalf of engineering and science." Livingston's appearance was one of his last official acts before leaving office February 28.

The presentation was a highlight of the EDC's annual Public Policy Colloquium, which drew nearly 100 engineering deans to Washington, D.C., in February. The group represented nearly one-third of the EDC membership and was the largest contingent in the five-year history of the meeting, which is aimed at raising the Capitol Hill profile of engineering education and research issues.

The Livingston presentation was part of a Capitol Hill reception that drew several members of Congress and other government officials, including Duncan Moore, Office of Science and Technology Policy associate technology director, and Rear Admiral Paul Gaffney, chief of naval research.

Other colloquium highlights included a speech by Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), vice-chair of the House Science Committee, who called for more Capitol Hill involvement by the engineering and scientific community.

National Science Foundation director Rita Colwell also addressed the deans, stating that NSF would seek $3.95 billion for 2000-a 6 percent increase over 1999.

Also well received was a science writers panel, which prompted numerous questions from the deans about raising the profile of engineers and engineering. Other discussions included K-12 education, the impact of globalization on engineering education and research in the United States, and federal R&D funding for universities in the 2000 budget.

The deans ended their Washington trips by visiting their individual members of Congress to raise the legislators' awareness of the profession and to discuss federal engineering education and research activities.

Dispatches

Women's College to Offer Engineering

Citing both a pressing national need for women engineers and a commitment to providing significant new opportunities for its graduates, Smith College is establishing the nation's first engineering program at a women's college.

Classes will begin this fall and the first graduates are expected in 2004. Smith President Ruth J. Simmons characterized the new engineering program as "a bold venture but an important one for a forward-looking women's college."

"Women represent more than 50 percent of the college-going population but only 9 percent of the engineering workforce," Simmons explains. "Clearly, it's a matter of national import that our country not only produce more women engineers but also develop new, truly effective models for educating them."

AAES Launches Engineering Alliance

Improving public awareness and understanding of the engineering profession is the goal of The Engineering Alliance, a new initiative by the American Association of Engineering Societies that will combine the efforts of industry, academia, and AAES's 26 member societies.

The Engineering Alliance seeks to increase the number, quality, and diversity of U.S. students completing engineering degree programs at all levels through a variety of public awareness and outreach activities.

"The importance of engineering is not always recognized by society at large," explains Alliance co-chair Travis Engen, chair and chief executive of ITT Industries. "At a time when engineering talent is at a premium and the number of students completing engineering degree programs continues to decline, corporate America must recognize its responsibility to raise the public's awareness of this discipline. I believe The Engineering Alliance is a positive first step in meeting that responsibility."

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