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Re easy vs powerful OS -

Una Smith unasmith at phoenix.Princeton.EDU
Tue Mar 19 18:34:08 EST 1991


Bill Pearson:

>>People learn to use what they need.

Cary O'Donnell:

>If only that statement were true! Most users' experience is to the contrary,
>and surely what sparked the whole debate off. The point is that DESPITE the
>high level of ability in one area, many biologists find the use of computers
>a difficult task.

In my experience, both views are accurate.  Some highly regarded
scientists seem incapable of doing anything more than writing grant
proposals on MACs or PCs.  Occasionally, students have this problem too,
but only rarely.  I have introduced many, many scientists (faculty and
students) to computers, and seen most of them quickly grasp these tools,
becoming highly competent, efficient computer users.  In my experience,
scientists are capable of absorbing almost effortlessly everything they
need to know to do the things they want with computers.

When scientists (and others) fail to learn in this fashion, I generally
get the impression that they don't really care to learn.  They may make
a stab at learning, but only because they see other scientists getting
excited about computers, and they think that computers are something
they too should know how to use.  Computers are not the only modern 
tool that many scientists think they have to use;  molecular techniques
are another tool that some researchers feel compelled to learn to use,
whether they need it or not.

The ratio of computer support to need-for-support seems to vary with 
the proportion of the faculty who use computers.  In other words,
when researchers are stuck on the low end of the computer resource
curve, thus needing the most support, they have the most trouble
convincing their colleagues and administrators that computers (and
computer technicians) are needed.  It's a sad situation:  the more
you need relative to what you have, the less you get.

Departments on the low end of the computer resource curve tend to
perceive computers as hard to use, and not worth the investment needed
to significantly improve computer resources;  they tend to lock
themselves into a vicious cycle, and do not advance up the resource
curve unless the university administration steps in.  Departments on
the high end of the curve are astonishingly adept at staying there.

I should explain how I came by my opinions.  I worked as a computer
consultant at Princeton University for 4 years, 1983-87, during which
time most departments went from the very bottom to well up the computer
resource curve, thanks to a very strong committment by the University
President and Trustees.  Then, for 2 years, I worked for the Dept.
of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton and the Smithsonian
Tropical Research Institution (a branch of the Smithsonian Institution
located in Panama).

During this time, individual faculty members and graduate students 
in the Princeton department continued to make significant contributions
to the computer resources of the entire department, and the department
began to demand that the university supply it with even more resources,
instead of being forced to take them by the university.  Meanwhile, the
Smithsonian realized that a growing number of visiting researchers
either brought their own computers with them, or required that the
Smithsonian provide them with computers during their stay.  Suddenly,
over the course of a two year period, virtually every permanent employee
was given a PC, and computer laboratories were set up for the use of
visitors in every facility.  The process was extremely educational for
everyone concerned.

As is often the case, the Smithsonian staff initially saw no need to
provide computer resources to visiting students, nor to hire computer
support personnel.  But once the students at one facility managed to
assemble a computer laboratory, and began to use the laboratory to
analyze their data as they collected it, it became obvious that they
did indeed need computer resources.  Once computers were available,
the many visiting scientists quickly showed just how useful computers
can be, and the computer literacy and sophistication of the
Smithsonian staff and administration grew by leaps and bounds.  The
willingness of the Smithsonian to consider hiring computer support
personnel increased only with increasing computer literacy.  The
rate of change has been truely dramatic, and I believe that the
quality and quantity of research has also increased significantly.

I am now a graduate student at Duke University, where the Life Science
departments are still stuck at the bottom of the computer resource
curve.  A recent accreditation inspection of the University gave 
generally high marks, but singled out computing as a severe deficit.
There are many signs that the University administration recognizes
the problems, but the University has not yet seen fit to invest
any significant financial resources to improve computing at Duke,
apparently hoping that the individual departments will find their
own solutions.  How bad is the situation here?  I'll just point out
that I find it either convenient or necessary to use a computer at
Princeton to participate in this discussion.

	- Una




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