Department of Science in House leader's plans
Should the federal government amass all its nonmilitary research in a single cabinet department? Yes, says Pennsylvania's Robert Walker, chairman of the House Science Committee. He sees wasteful overlaps in the current hodgepodge of technology projects spread over scores of agencies. For three years, Rep. Walker has advocated a Department of Science. Its core might be the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Science Foundation, and federal laboratories that are now part of the Commerce and Energy departments. Scientific projects at the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also could end up in the proposed department. Military and medical research would remain with the Pentagon and the National Institutes of Health. With Republicans in control of Congress, Walker's proposal packs much more punch than in the past. House Speaker Newt Gingrich tells Design News that he thinks elimination of at least four old cabinet departments would enable the government to actually increase R&D.
Younger and fewer employees foreseen at space agency
Wherever NASA winds up in the federal structure, the space agency will be much slimmer and more youthful. It will shrink by thousands of workers, predicts its administrator, Daniel Goldin. He expects to get an exact figure in May when a workforce assessment ends. Meanwhile, Goldin has imposed a hiring freeze. Much of the employment drop, he says, will come from veteran workers who accept compensation for resigning or taking early retirement. The result, Goldin adds, will be a younger NASA staff. The agency also is pondering future roles of its 10 main centers. Goldin threatens to close any center that is "not world-class." A panel of six experts recommends that private contractors take over much of the space shuttle management. It also calls for a freeze on the current design of the shuttle. Since the Challenger accident, the report says, "managers, engineers and business people are reluctant to make decisions that involve risk because of the fear of persecution."
Government orders anti-locks on heavy trucks, buses
Designers of future heavy trucks, tractors, trailers, and buses must equip them with anti-lock braking systems. The National Highway Traffic Safety Commission issued the order after reviewing results of a five-year study involving hundreds of trucks, tractors, and semi-trailers. Heavy buses, tractors, and single-unit trucks also must meet stopping-distance criteria from a speed of 60 mph. New truck tractors will have to pass a 30-mph test in a curve with brakes fully applied. Phase-in of the requirements starts with truck tractors made after March 1, 1997.
Air-bag improvements include side units
Engineers are making big strides in the design of air bags for autos. So concludes the latest air-bag report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, headquartered in Arlington, VA. The study finds that 23% fewer driver deaths are occurring in frontal crashes of cars with air bags, compared with cars equipped with safety belts alone. Fresh designs and research should bring further improvements, the study predicts. Air bags in new Mercedes and BMW cars deploy at higher speeds when occupants are using belts. That cuts down on air-bag injuries such as abrasions during low-speed collisions in which belts provide sufficient restraint. Inventors are working on bags that will activate at different speeds, according to additional factors. They are figuring in the occupant's weight, the angle of the seat back, and the distance of the occupant from the instrument panel. Single-point electronic sensors with accelerometers would deploy a bag. The new Volvo 850 has side-impact bags. The institute envisions cars equipped with as many as six air bags. Two would protect the driver and front-seat passengers in frontal smash-ups. In side crashes, two other pairs would inflate from the car's sides.
Notetaker's helper wins young inventors award
A portable computer with a built-in microcassette garnered top honors in a national competition for young inventors. The note-taking device has a "bookmark" feature that allows the user to annotate the analog recording of a lecture or interview with an electronic pen. Ara Knaian, a high school senior in Newton, MA, designed the top entry. Among other winning inventions by students: a robot that sorts recyclables, a bicycle tail-light that blinks during pedaling and brightens and burns steadily during braking, a cane that gets longer when the user descends stairs, an ultrasonic eye that detects and identifies objects in a driver's blind spot, and a stop sign for school crossing guards that automatically lights up the corner stop sign on dark mornings. The National Science Teachers Association of Arlington, VA, helped sponsor the contest.