|Expanding Access to Science and Technology (UNU, 1994, 462 pages)|
|Session 1: Access to science and technology and the information revolution|
|Keynote presentation: the impact of information technology on the access to science|
This paper has given an overview of the way in which computer and telecommunication technology is changing the modes of accessing scientific and technical information. Particular emphasis has been given to numerical and factual data banks, although the general trends apply equally to other types of information. It is a safe prediction that the level of electronic access will grow over the next decade, since the momentum is strong. However, the rate of growth will be dependent on our success in overcoming some of the barriers to the use of the new information technology that still exist.
Cost forms one of the most significant barriers, and we can hope that efficiencies will be introduced that will reduce the cost of creating and maintaining computerized data banks. In addition, policy and attitudinal changes will be needed. For example, the free use of books in a scientific library is taken for granted, but most libraries still change a user or his research project for accessing an on-line data bank. Changes in financial policies of universities and other public institutions could do much to encourage greater use of the available technologies.
Deficiencies in the interface between the computer and the human user form another type of barrier. In spite of frequent discussion of "user-friendly interfaces," the fact is that most data banks are still clumsy to use. The need to learn - and remember - a special set of commands or protocols for each system is a real barrier to the widespread use of data banks. Graphics capabilities are still limited for most personal computer systems; subscripts, special characters, and different type fonts are not generally available. Thus, the display of retrieved data appears primitive compared to a well-composed printed text. Furthermore, in using the new technologies to store and retrieve information, we have probably been influenced too much by the familiar paper-based formats, just as the early automobiles resembled horse-drawn carriages. More imaginative thinking about the retrieval and display of data from computer databases will undoubtedly lead to much more useful and effective information systems.
More innovative approaches to guiding the user to the specific data he wants will also help expand the utility of data banks. While some attempts have been made to develop expert systems that analyse a user's needs, a more serious effort is required. Human translation of a query from someone who is seeking a source of data is often a slow and uncertain process; it is to be hoped that expert systems can be developed that are more efficient. Directories such as the NASA Global Change Master Directory will also help overcome this barrier. What hopefully will evolve is a widely accepted system for keeping track of electronic databases that is analogous in function to the tools available to librarians to locate books.
One essential requirement for effective use of modern technology is free flow of information across national boundaries. The current situation is much better in this regard than at certain times in the past, when restrictions were imposed by various countries on military, ideological, or political grounds. Perhaps the main concern in this decade is that countries may attempt to restrict the export of technical information on grounds of economic competitiveness. Such restrictions would have a debilitating effect on access to data for scientific purposes.
In summary, the new information technology that had its birth three decades ago has proved its effectiveness for accessing many types of scientific and technical information. We are now entering a stage where extensions and refinements should make it possible for all scientists to obtain quickly and easily the information needed in their work. Wise policies on the part of national governments can greatly expedite this process.