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NIH Record

Researchers Urged to Avert Millennial Mayhem

By Greg Roa

Biomedical equipment is not immune to the Millennium Bug -- that's the urgent message the NIH Year 2000 (Y2K) medical and laboratory work group wants researchers to hear. To help scientists safeguard their research, the Center for Information Technology recently unveiled an interactive clearinghouse that helps them check laboratory and medical equipment for Y2K compliance -- http://oirm.cit.nih.gov/biomedical/.

"By running a search on this Web site, scientists are able to tell at a glance whether they're ready for Y2K," said Cheryl Seaman, who leads CIT's effort to alert researchers about Y2K issues. "It should prove very helpful to the scientific community."

Nonnegotiable Deadline

The Year 2000 problem, a computer glitch lurking in some computer hardware and software, could cause machines to malfunction or shut down at the end of the century. Scientific equipment often contains embedded microchips that can handle anything from simple date-stamping tasks to complex operations such as interfacing with other machines. Consequently, researchers must be concerned about the Y2K compliance status of all their systems -- not only PCs but also biomedical equipment. Otherwise, months or years of data and costly experiments could be jeopardized.

ILLUSTRATION: RICHARD THOMPSON

A few researchers learned firsthand about the pervasive Y2K bug when CIT helped survey parts of the Clinical Center and NIA's Gerontology Research Center earlier this year. The participants first thought only computers were at risk. But after surveyors inquired about instruments that used date/time functions, including some that relied on unexamined microchips, their dragnet widened.

"No one should panic over Y2K," said Seaman, "but by the same token, it's good scientific practice to check your equipment carefully. We can only solve problems we know about -- and the time to identify them is now."

Preemptive Measures Planned

NIH has taken a two-part approach to assessing intramural research equipment suspected of having a Y2K problem. First, ICs must conduct a complete inventory of equipment where noncompliant use could adversely affect the health and well being of humans and animals.

For all other types of equipment, laboratory and branch chiefs will certify that their scientists are aware of Y2K issues; know what type of equipment could be affected; seek compliance information from the biomedical clearinghouse or manufacturers; make necessary remediation; and have contingency plans in place.

Right Tools for the Job

Though ultimate responsibility for investigating equipment lies with individual researchers, the new NIH Y2K Biomedical Clearinghouse makes their job much easier. The Web site database boasts over 13,000 records that visitors can search by product or manufacturer name. If a piece of equipment is not indexed, scientists can use the interactive form to file a request for Y2K compliance research. Clearinghouse operators will then contact the manufacturer and post the information within 30 days. The clearinghouse also includes an Excel spreadsheet file that can be downloaded to facilitate inventory activities and emailed back to the contractor for compliance assessment research. Updates to the clearinghouse will occur weekly.

Scientists who find their equipment is non-compliant will be able to upgrade, repair, replace or surplus machines. By determining early on whether to purchase new hardware or software, they can avoid costly, extended backorder delays.

"The NIH Clearinghouse augments similar lists from the FDA, VA hospitals, and others," noted Jaren Doherty, chairman of the NIH Year 2000 working group. "It really places a vast reservoir of information at the scientist's fingertips."

It also features links to other useful sites, including the NIH Information Technology Clearinghouse at http://www-oirm.nih.gov/itclear/. This contains Y2K compliance information concerning Unix and other computer systems and software.

For a live demo of the Biomedical Clearinghouse, visit the special Y2K booth during the NIH Research Festival poster sessions, Oct. 7-9, 1:30-4:30 p.m. For more information, researchers can also contact their IC's Year 2000 working group representative listed in the clearinghouse.


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