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The National Science Foundation and the National Science Board (which oversees the NSF) issued their strongest warnings yet regarding the loss of U.S. dominance in critical areas of science and innovation and the shortage of U.S. scientists entering technical fields. In two New York Times reports, federal and industry experts traced the steady decline of U.S. technical achievements in the last decade, while foreign advances in basic science now often rival or exceed the U.S. Analysts cite strong evidence of this decline in the number of prestigious scientific prizes awarded to Americans and the number of scientific papers written by U.S. scientists published in major journals. "We are in a new world, and it's increasingly going to be dominated by countries other than the U.S." said Denis Simon, dean of management and technology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. A new report from an NSB advisory panel, entitled An Emerging and Critical Problem of the Science and Engineering Labor Force, notes a "troubling decline" in the number of Americans training to be scientists, contending such trends "threaten the economic welfare and security of our country." European and Asian nations are ascendant, experts say; a trend that will continue. Said panel chair Warren M. Washington: "For many years we have benefited from minimal competition in the global science and engineering labor force. But attractive and competitive alternatives are now expanding around the world."

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Vocal Cards

A credit card that works only when it hears its owner's voice may become the new weapon against online fraud, reports New Scientist. A prototype built by engineers at Beepcard, Santa Monica, CA, represents the company's latest effort to create a voice-recognition card of diminutive dimensions. The new version incorporates a microphone, a loudspeaker, a voice-recognition chip, and a battery. The owner pushes a button on the card that prompts it to ask for a password; once the password is confirmed the device uses its ID squawk to identify itself and an online server confirms it to permit a transaction. The only way thieves could possibly use the card is if they could copy the owner's voice with an extremely high degree of accuracy. Although the prototype is the length and width of a typical credit card, it is currently about three times as thick. Beepcard intends to use smaller chips to thin it down, as well as include a nonreplaceable battery to allow 10 transactions per day for two years.

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Flexible Flying

The image of a plane with wings that bend and twist during flight is enough to make most travelers consider other forms of transportation. Yet, a growing number of aerospace researchers contend that airplanes with flexible wings could lead to more efficient and maneuverable aircraft for both military and commercial flight. Space.com reports that Penn State University researchers have developed a mechanized internal truss that would pull on the outer skin of an aircraft's wings, reshaping them to fit changing flying conditions and speeds. Meanwhile, NASA researchers have already flown a plane with wings that bend, a modernized take on a 100-year-old aviation technique. The goal of these projects is to make the wings lighter and therefore gain more control of the aircraft at both fast and slow speeds. As the Wright Brothers before them, today's researchers look to the birds for answers; studying how they control the features lining the tips of their wings that allow them to soar, roll, turn, and dive in flight by simply changing the shape and orientations of their wings. Says Penn State engineer George Lesieutre: "This really is an old problem, but people continue to look at it from fresh angles."

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Fantastic Voyage

Scientists at Israel's Weizmann Institute have moved a step closer to creating a tiny DNA computer that may one day identify a disease from inside the body and release a drug to combat it. The team, led by Ehud Shapiro, built the smallest biomolecular computer a few years ago; now they have programmed it to analyze biological information to detect and treat prostate cancer and a form of lung cancer in laboratory experiments. The microscopic computer is so small a trillion could fit in a drop of water. Its input, output, and software consist of DNA molecules. "Our work represents the first actual proof of concept and the first actual demonstration of a possible real-life application for this kind of computer," Shapiro told Reuters. He foresees this computer becoming able to detect any illness for which there is a particular pattern of over-expression or under-expression of genes that is characteristic for the disease. However, Shapiro is quick to point out the day of DNA computers floating through our bodies is still far off: "There are many, many hurdles. It could take decades."

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Uninvited Consequences

Medical advances can also set off unwelcome responses. Radioactive diagnostic-imaging technologies have advanced and expanded over the years to help treat millions of patients. But in the era of terror alerts and fears of dirty bombs, a growing number of patients undergoing radioactive procedures can find themselves transferred into FBI targets. The Wall Street Journal reports equipment created over the past three years to detect radiation has not only become a booming business, but the devices have advanced to the point they now pick up signals from radioactive material that has been injected into or ingested by patients undergoing certain medical tests or treatments. Such patients might be required to present medical proof to appease law enforcement concerns. Said a recent stress-test patient followed to his Maryland home by the FBI: "It would be good if doctors provided a FAQ sheet about the repercussions" of the test.

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Snooze Control

College science classes are so boring that the trickle-down effect may not only influence future scientific advancements but society as a whole (see "Dominance Lost," pg. 9). So say researchers at North Carolina State University who argue educators must be alerted and "educated" in better ways to teach the sciences. Based on a number of different studies, researchers found traditional lectures and cookbook laboratory exercises do not foster conceptual understanding of scientific reasoning. Instead, courses that mimic the way real scientists work would not only help students learn but encourage them to take more science classes. In a commentary published in Science, the NCSU team claimed "Active participation helps students develop the habits of mind that drive science." If schools start to make the changes, they say, society would benefit as more graduates would be scientifically literate, even if they do not go into science-related fields themselves.

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