Fodder for IT policy

The National Science Board report

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Comparing the emergence of information technology to the Industrial Revolution,

the National Science Board's biennial report to the president recommends

that the federal government research how the Internet, electronic commerce

and other technologies affect how we work and live.

The report, "Science and Engineering Indicators 2000," released this

month, assesses the health of science and technology in the United States

and tracks U.S. research and development trends and expenditures compared

with other countries.

The report, prepared for the National Science Foundation and submitted to

the White House and Congress, serves as an information resource for public

and private policy-makers to draw their own conclusions about the state

of science and technology and how to respond to it, said Robert Richardson,

National Science Board member of the Education and Human Resources Committee.

A chapter devoted to information technology, "Significance of Information

Technologies," was included in the report for the second time since it was

inaugurated in 1998. The chapter's intent is to present a balanced view

of the use of IT in education, business and government and to avoid the

hype that "e-commerce and the Internet are everything," said David Cheney,

vice president for policy and research at the Internet Policy Institute.

Cheney helped write the IT chapter when he worked for SRI International.

"There's been a long debate about whether computers are improving productivity,"

Cheney said. "We wanted to look at the evidence and say what's new and different

about the Internet and e-commerce vs. traditional transactions. The total

effect is slower than the hype would lead one to believe and less understood

because the interactions are so complex."

A major focus of the IT chapter is on the digital divide and access to technology.

Although statistics support that the divide exists, it is too early to examine

the social implications of the disparity, said John Armstrong, National

Science Board member of the Science and Engineering Indicators Subcommittee.

According to the report, more than 70 percent of those who lack a high

school diploma had no access to a computer last year. In contrast, only

30 percent of those who graduated from high school and only 8 percent of

those with at least a bachelor's degree lacked access.

"We want to make certain all pieces of society are trained and have

access to computers," Richardson said. "It is necessary for the development

of tools for the next generation."

The Clinton administration's requested Federal Cyber Services program,

a multiagency effort that would includethe NSF, is part of the effort to

shrink the digital divide. The program hopes to attract about 3,000 high

school and college graduates as well as current federal IT workers to train

and form a corps of highly skilled IT workers for the government.

Since most of the work on the report was finished last fall, some new data

has emerged that shows that some of the gaps may be closing, Cheney said.

"Costs will continue to come down, so cost will be less of an issue

in the divide over time," Cheney said.

The board also recommended the creation of IT indexes to measure interconnectivity

and the presence of IT in homes.

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