Within five years, the National Science Foundation hopes to receive a "substantial" number of proposals electronically, according to Alvin Thaler, NSF’s point man for computerizing document transfer. By late fall, Thaler hopes to see a test proposal arrive electronically, complete with tables, equations, diagrams, and photographs.

In the meantime about 40,000 proposals a year arrive at NSF, each one (with its copies) about a foot thick. Line them up on a shelf and you have "seven miles of proposals, that’s a long walk," Thaler says.

Less paper, faster processing, captured keystrokes, the benefits of computerization seem obvious, but what’s slowing Thaler down is the nature of U.S. society. "We could have solved this problem very easily by saying everybody has to buy this system, this brand." With the same hardware and software, researchers and program officers could whisk proposals and comments back and forth with ease. However, the United States...

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