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Category: General Ramblings (Page 1 of 11)

Exploring the Divide Between Science and Security

A considerable divide, often seen manifest through science and technology policies and regulations, exists between the scientific community and the national security community. As an inherently forward-thinking group, the scientific community favors change, progress, and innovation; conversely, the national security community, concerned about matters of defense and its capacity to counter foreseen threats and challenges, favors the preservation and protection of a status quo for which it is accustomed and prepared. Change, especially unexpected change, is therefore considered threatening. The scientific community values, and indeed strives upon, collaboration, the open exchange of ideas, and the flow of knowledge. The national security community, on the other hand, values secrecy and control of information, lest it fall into the “wrong hands.” In this context, the dual-use nature of technology and knowledge puts pressure on the government to strike a balance between supporting its scientific constituents in their research and enabling the national security community to protect the nation by limiting and regulating the technologies and knowledge that research produces. For – as is decidedly the case with our control of the atom, knowledge of the cell, and power of the internet – the products of science have as much capacity to be used for evil, to harm our community, as they can be used for good to enhance our lives. Through a look at the issues of that balance, drawing from examples in the space field as a case-study, this essay examines this divide in the context of science and technology policy.

In the wake of the September 11th attacks, a renewed focus has been placed on protecting the American homeland and guaranteeing the safety of American citizens. Concerns that terrorist groups will utilize products of technological advancement – miniaturized nuclear weapons, biological and chemical agents, and cyberwarfare, to name a few – for harm have manifested themselves in policies and regulations restricting the scope and nature of what the scientific community can study and produce. For example, scientists studying biological agents have found that certain vectors and agents, deemed dangerous and weaponizable by the government despite their research value, have come under tight control and limitation. Meanwhile, continuing anxieties about the capabilities of conventional adversaries such as China, Russia, and Iran have been cause for government-issued controls on the export of particular technologies, limits on the communication and transfer of certain information and knowledge, and restrictions on who can participate in American scientific research and technological development.

Fears about the application of science and technology for malicious purposes are hardly new, however. Since the dawn of the atomic age and the Cold War, which was defined in large part by technological competition between the Soviet Union and the United States, scientists have found themselves under considerable scrutiny by the government and national security sector. Because of its potential application for dangerous purposes, scientific knowledge and know-how can be considered a security risk; this was particularly the case at the height of the ‘McCarthy era’ in the United States. A high-profile example of this, relevant to the space and rocketry field, is that of Tsien Hsue-Shen. A Chinese-born scientist, Tsien was instrumental in laying the foundation of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; his research in fluid dynamics, structures, and engineering is regarded as making possible the United States’ entry into space. Amidst McCarthy-era fears and paranoia, however, he was accused of being a Communist sympathizer and deported to China. In the context of the Cold War security environment, the perceived threat he and his knowledge posed trounced his contributions to American science; ironically, upon his return to China, the Communist Party made full use of his skills – placing him in charge of the Chinese missile program. Tsein’s case is not unique; several scientists living and working in the United States have found themselves come under suspicion because of their work and suspicions of their loyalty. That some have been arrested and deported – both rightly and wrongly – reflects the delicate, occasionally damaging, balance that is struck between security concerns regarding scientists and their pursuit of knowledge.

Related to the concerns levied upon American scientists, the United States government places considerable restrictions upon foreigners who wish to pursue scientific and technological work in the United States. Borne from fears that these individuals may be agents working for other governments and/or that they will take their knowledge and skills back to their home nation upon their works completion, the government frequently prohibits foreigners from engaging in work that has dual-use risk or national security application. In the space field, for example, foreigners are often prohibited from working on technologies related to rockets, as that technology can equally be applied to the production of ballistic missiles. Accordingly, commercial rocket companies operating in the United States require that their engineers and technologists be United States citizens. Foreigners working for NASA or for commercial space companies often find themselves prohibited from entering restricted areas or accessing sensitive information and technology, despite its importance and relevance to their work. Again, this is reflective of the divide between the scientific and security communities; there are understandable security concerns regarding foreigners, especially those with places of origin that may be adversarial to the United States. However, it is equally understandable – and indeed beneficial – that foreigners would wish to pursue scientific and technological work in the United States. Attracting foreign talent and knowledge has historically been a major driver behind the United States’ scientific leadership and resulting technological and economic dominance. This form of open cooperation is native to the scientific mindset. Too restrictive of limitations and regulations on foreign scientists could therefore come at a detriment to scientific progress and economic growth, which may be equally challenging to the country as the possible security risks these scientists represent. Finding how, and where, to strike an appropriate balance for this issue is a continuing debate.

Associated with security concerns about foreign scientists making nefarious use of American scientific work and technology is the field of export control policies. These regulations require that certain items with defense-related uses, or commercial items which could have military applicability, be licensed before they’re exported to certain foreign countries. The security rationale, of course, is to prevent foreign countries or actors from acquiring advanced American-made technology which could then be used for harm; likewise, it is to prevent the reverse-engineering of that technology which would bring possible adversaries to a “level playing-field” with the United States. However, beyond covering simply tangible items and products, export controls also control the information and knowledge related to the export-controlled good. As such, transmitting that information or knowledge to a foreign national is considered an export and must therefore be licensed as well.  Because of this, American scientists often face difficulties in collaborating with scientists in foreign countries on topics that are covered by the United States’ export control list. This, of course, reflects the difference in perceptions between the security and scientific communities on the value of information – scientists seek the open flow of information, regardless of with whom, to collaborate and further advance the pursuit of their research; the government sees the open flow of information as a possible source of harm undermining the United States’ technological advantage against enemies.

The issue of export controls is particularly significant and pronounced in the space field. Satellite technology, which obviously has the capability to be used for military purposes, has for decades been under tight control by stringent export regulations. As such, space-related research involving satellites requires scientists to go through the lengthy and difficult licensing process to pursue their research – just to find, as is frequently the case, that they are denied. The effect this has on space science and collaboration has been considerably detrimental. Without the capacity to collaborate with foreigners abroad, American scientists find themselves disadvantaged through limited data sets; this is especially true for space, where foreign satellite capabilities may augment or supplement those of the United States or where the United States is simply lacking in capability. Beyond export controls impacting collaboration between non-government scientists studying space, government regulations have also had serious impact on the capacity for NASA to interact and partner with certain countries in pursuit of space science goals.

Since 2004, when it was mandated in law, NASA has been totally prohibited from partnering, collaborating, or even interacting with the Chinese space program. The rationale behind this prohibition was the same behind export controls in general – a fear that China, as a growing geopolitical competitor and adversary, will take the scientific and technological knowledge gained through partnership and apply it in ways that could disadvantage the United States. This is, seen through a security perspective, an entirely reasonable concern; the Chinese are known for actively reverse-engineering foreign technology and applying it to their military systems. However, because of the prohibition, NASA has been unable to even engage in scientific partnership with the Chinese space program. As China’s program is considerably funded and capable, particularly in the field of telescopes and space observation, this has doubtlessly come at a loss of scientific gain for both nations. Moreover, it has opened the trade space for Chinese space scientists to partner instead with the space programs and scientists of other countries – at the detriment to the United States’ scientific leadership and clout.

As evidenced by these policies and regulations, a divide clearly exists between the scientific community’s pursuit of knowledge and technology and the security community’s concerns that that knowledge and those technologies may be used for harm against the United States. The government, as both a resource for scientists and a protector of the American homeland, has tried to find a balance between this divide through policies that, with the lightest touch possible, limit the degree to which knowledge and technology can be acquired by possible foreign adversaries. Of course, any restriction comes at a loss for scientists, who naturally value completely open communication, information, and collaboration. As can be seen by historical and contemporary example and circumstances, even the most reasoned and rationale security policies can have significant impact on the American scientific community and their work. Such is the result of the unfortunate fact that, even while scientists engage in their work for the betterment of humanity and a greater understanding of the world around us, the products of science are inherently neutral – if an actor wishes to use knowledge or technology for harm, it can often easily be applied toward that end. This is particularly true in the modern day as technologies are rapidly advancing, proliferating, and becoming more capable. Considering that, the divide between these two communities and the policies that manifest as a result are likely to remain.

Addressing the Government Role in the Energy “Grand Challenge”

Energy, occupying a prominent position as a technology “grand challenge,” has invited significant levels of investment into capabilities that will further advance and improve its production. The importance of energy production to the United States cannot be understated; the energy sector contributes upwards of $1.5 trillion to the domestic economy. Considering this, the United States’ overall investments in energy technology research, and the results of those investments to date, have been seen by many as considerably inadequate. This essay examines the energy options available to the United States today, exploring their respective advantages and disadvantages. From that, it addresses where and how the United States government should intervene to address, and potentially correct, the imbalances of investment apparent in energy technology research.

The United States presently makes use of a mix of energy sources, some of which have a long history of utilization while others are emergent through new technologies, capabilities, and investments. Each have a set of unique advantages and disadvantage – technological, economic, and in utilization – which impact their effectiveness, efficiency, and cost. In approaching the proper government role in addressing the energy “grand challenge,” these advantages and disadvantages serve as important metrics that need be considered.

The predominance of American energy currently comes from non-renewable sources: oil, coal, and natural gas. As the traditional sources for American energy production, the advantages of these resources are multifold. The United States’ energy infrastructure – designed to support their extraction, transportation, and production – allows ease of access to the energy derived from them. In terms of cost, non-renewable sources are, at present, substantially cheaper than alternatives; the long history of electricity generation using these resources has progressively driven down associated costs through technological iteration. Moreover, there is a general abundance of these resources available in the United States – the United States is the world’s leader in natural gas and oil production. Yet, despite this, these resources bear significant disadvantages as well; hence the government’s push to catalyze the development of renewable alternatives. Key among them are the significant levels of carbon dioxide pollution (among other pollutants) that they produce and emit into the atmosphere. Climate scientists argue that increasing carbon dioxide levels will have irreversibly profound negative impacts on the planet’s environment and, accordingly, on humanity. Likewise, methods used to extract natural gas, such as fracking, have been targeted as the source of severe environmental degradation. Finally, though the United States may be the world’s largest producer of oil, it nonetheless continues to rely upon oil imports to fuel its broad energy production needs. National dependence on the global oil market raises national security concerns, as oil price volatility, as well as instability in oil producing regions of the globe, have an impact on the United States’ economy and security.

Alongside these non-renewables, another longstanding source of American energy production has been nuclear energy. Among nuclear energy’s advantages, it offers the potential for near-unlimited energy supply (as nuclear fuels, though not necessarily abundant, are long-lasting) and emits, relative to non-renewables, little pollution into the atmosphere. Nuclear power plants can technically be built anywhere and can operate with high load factors – often at 90%. Yet as history has shown, nuclear power plants often suffer serve cost overruns, passing costs off onto energy consumers. As government subsidies waned, so too have the economics of nuclear power. The issue of nuclear waste is considerable; radioactive and long-lasting, nuclear waste’s disposal has become difficult topic politically and logistically. Most importantly, there is significant public backlash against the use of nuclear energy – the perceived dangers associated with nuclear, exacerbated by the Three Mile Island and Fukushima incidents, have created considerable opposition against the construction of further nuclear power plants.

Finally, there are several renewable energy technologies that are beginning to come to the fore. By 2010, energy produced by non-nuclear renewable sources had grown to supply 8% of national consumption; this trend of growth is expected to continue. Among these technologies are hydro, wood, corn ethanol, geothermal, wind, and solar. While the diversity of renewable options and their increasing share of national energy production may suggest success in the development of renewable sources, their disadvantages are worth note.

Hydropower provides clean and essentially carbon-free power. However, hydropower stations, often in the form of dams, are complicated projects and often expensive to build. By their physical need for flowing water, their scalability and economics are limited by geography – most low-cost sites in the United States have already been developed. Moreover, hydropower output depends on the strength of their water source, which varies by season and year. Wood-derived power, meanwhile, is mostly available in the timber-producing states of the Southeast and Northwest. The growth of this source will necessarily track with lumber and paper production. Producing corn ethanol, the only renewable source competing with oil, is not a technically complex process. However, the economics of corn ethanol for fuel are poor; it contains only two-thirds as much energy per gallon as gasoline and requires the purchase of huge amounts of corn, which divert crops from the food supply. Subsidies that incentivized the forcing of ethanol onto the market were passed off in cost onto American consumers, who additionally must shoulder the cost of higher food prices because of the associated decrease in supply. Geothermal, which makes use of high-pressure water trapped in seismically active areas, leaves a very small environmental footprint. However, its scalability is understandably limited by geography and, accordingly, faces little prospects for production growth in the years ahead.

As the renewable energy sources that have perhaps garnered the most attention and enthusiasm in recent years, wind and solar produce a surprisingly limited share of the United States’ supply. Nonetheless, they have experienced rapid growth. Wind power is environmentally clean. However, as of 2012, its economics were costly compared to non-renewables; nonetheless, these costs are beginning to decline. Relying on the force of the wind, this source power is intermittent, has a substantially slow load factor, and is generally disproportionately available at night. Moreover, the most state-of-the-art turbines require large wind farms which generate considerable opposition from populated areas, thereby forcing them into remote areas which necessitate expensive transmission lines. Solar power, meanwhile, is tremendously environmentally friendly. However, with very low load factors and efficiency, it remains at present too expensive for widespread application and use. Like wind, however, its costs too have begun to considerably decline in recent years.

The quest for new energy options – particularly renewables – is and remains a priority for the federal government; however, intensive federal research and investment into these renewable sources has yet to produce transformative results capable of supplanting our need for non-renewables. Noting the disadvantages listed above, a key metric is their comparatively limited economics – considering load factor capability and efficiency – and high costs relative to non-renewables. This suggests that renewable energy technologies invested in and brought to market today have been prematurely commercialized; for a sector as large as energy, forcing the use of more expensive forms can have serious consequences for growth.

For renewables to succeed in the “grand challenge,” they must be cost-competitive when they launch into established markets and scale up rapidly if they are to make a difference. This “moment of market launch” problem, as important as the traditional “valley of death,” is the key issue underlying the imbalances of investment apparent in energy technology research. Addressing it will take government intervention in the “front-end,” and particularly “back-end,” of energy R&D. Of note, however, is that the government should legislate standardized support and intervene in common ways across technologies, so that technology neutrality is preserved and the optimal emergent technology has the best chance to succeed – a necessary approach if a sustainable, economical energy solution aligned to the pressures of the commercial market is to be found.

Foremost among suggested approaches regarding the front-end is the need for direct government support for long and short-term research and development and technology prototyping. Notably, the energy industry invests less than 1% of annual revenues in R&D for new technology. Laboratory work, being relatively inexpensive, is an area in which the government has a comparative advantage; the federal energy technology budget can be focused on conceptual and technical research. The establishment of Energy Frontier Research Centers, research hubs, and the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy are steps toward creating a more robust and capable front-end that accelerates innovation and cuts technology costs; government funding toward these initiatives should be prioritized. Beyond this, the government’s energy R&D portfolio should consider the “moment of market launch” issue facing new energy technologies. To that end, agencies should seek and support technologies that offer new functionalities upon market launch and therefore command a premium price. Likewise, agencies should strive to fast-forward research agendas to develop technologies to a stage where they are cost-competitive upon market launch.

Yet to directly address the key issues facing renewables, the government’s innovation system – historically focused on the front-end – will need to emphasis a focus on the back-end of energy R&D through the creation of initial commercial markets for new energy technologies. Among the suggestions issued, and debated, regarding appropriate government intervention in the back end are: tax credits – particularly those with incentives that offer additional benefits for the next stages of efficiency gains; loan guarantees – which should involve a wider risk portfolio and support more commercial-scale demonstrations than has traditionally been the case, in order to foster low market-entry costs; low-cost financing; and price guarantees. Government procurement programs are seen as a significant back-end enabler: boosting innovation and mandating efficiency in the federal building sector could provide a significant test bed and initial market for new energy technologies. Making greater use of federal regulatory authority to strengthen the back-end would be a powerful means to drive significant energy savings. Mandating minimum energy-efficiency standards is a method to incentivize the use of increasingly energy-efficient renewable sources; regulatory mandates could encourage the use of technologies that, in a non-regulated market, would face contested launch. Moreover, promoting an energy services model that rewards efficiency, not power sales, would, if coupled with financing tools to offset costs, help consumers achieve savings – boosting energy efficiency, after all, is among the cheapest methods toward progress in the energy sector. Through regulatory energy-efficiency mandates, the government need not pick “winners” and “losers” or selectively invest in particular technologies, but rather would incentivize efficiency iteration in a portfolio of technologies; the most commercially effective energy technology would emerge.

The Debate Regarding University Entrepreneurship

In an increasingly globalized world where economic activity is markedly more knowledge-intensive, universities serve as significant catalysts for economic growth and innovation in high-tech industries. As this trend continues, the role of universities in commercializing research and innovation – “university entrepreneurship” – has only begun. Over the past 3 decades, university entrepreneurship has been a topic of substantial policy debate; accordingly, universities must address the factors and features of their entrepreneurial role in the innovation system, lest both economic growth and the fundamental purpose of the university system suffer. The crux of the debate lay in the pressures facing universities to bring innovations to market, which some see in conflict with their traditional research purpose. Commercializing university research, it is argued, potentially comes at the detrimental cost of universities’ primary aims of education and community outreach. This essay, addressing the main aspects of that debate, outlines the role, pressures, and issues facing the entrepreneurial university.

With universities expanding their patenting, licensing, and commercializing of research, the potential they hold to spark innovation and economic growth increases. However, despite this, innovative economic growth is not an automatic nor guaranteed result. Means must be found to facilitate bringing university research to the market. Solutions seeking to increase this conversion rate center on the university structure and “technology transfer” – the transfer of new knowledge to industry, through support of academic research, and the movement of scientific talent to the private sector, in the form of trained graduate. A key legislative solution is the 1980 “Bayh-Dole Act,” which allows universities to retain intellectual property ownership from federally-sponsored research and development. Prior to 1980, most government-owned patents borne from university research had a low utilization rate because of industry’s hesitance to commercialize products without ownership of title. By removing substantial bureaucratic red tape and transferring patent rights to the universities conducting research, the Bayh-Dole Act’s intent is to minimize the likelihood that government-funded university inventions would languish uncommercialized.

To that end, the Bayh-Dole Act has generally been regarded as successful in promoting the commercialization of university research brought about through federal funds. Though not all see it as the primary driver behind university patenting, it nonetheless has been a significant incentive for universities to patent and license their research and establish technology transfer offices that facilitate the transfer of that research to industry. Yet it is these new institutional roles – patenting, licensing, and technology transfer – that underlie the concerns about university entrepreneurship. The conflict lay in balancing university support for entrepreneurial activities and their primary role of education, research, and public service. With close cooperation between industry and academia augmenting university funding, revenue, and profit, a risk is seen emerging that the integrity of university researchers, research, and the university itself may be compromised.

Because of a profit motive to commercialize research, questions emerge whether research faculty involvement in entrepreneurial activities diverts priorities away from scientific exploration toward work on applied research with more practical application and technological innovation. Moreover, there exists concerns that research is driven to areas where there is market incentive for a new knowledge or product.  Some see profit motives and the market-driven research that results as a corollary as generating a “winner-take-all” contest between universities as well as increasing politicization of government-funded research. If the above is indeed the case, at risk is the university role in advancing fundamental knowledge about the world. Equally so, market incentives fail to promote research and development into knowledge and technologies that benefit society at large but which would be incapable of recouping the considerable costs associated with the research. This would undermine the fundamental university mission and responsibility to make decisions based on global needs and particularly pay attention to research supporting neglected populations and geographic areas.

Considerable arguments with substantiating evidence exist to counter these concerns. Most scholars studying the issue find no evidence of a shift toward applied research away from basic research. Indeed, data gathered by the National Science Foundation found that the split between basic and applied research expenditures has not change despite the growing entrepreneurial role of universities. Some scholars have argued that commercialization, rather than favoring one form of research over another, increases the level of all research efforts. Buttressing this argument, a report analyzing technology transfer processes from Columbia and Stanford Universities found that financial incentives play little role in motivating faculty to embark on invention-producing research projects. After all, very few universities allow faculty to own their own inventions, regardless of whether the research funding came from industry or the government. Moreover, because of university expectations and systems such as tenure, scientists are more likely to face pressures to focus on basic research and publish their results in journals rather than to patent or license an invention.

Yet even if the above concerns aren’t unequivocal, other worries about the nature of university entrepreneurialism exist. Key among them are concerns about increased secrecy and publication delay on the part of university researchers because of the potential commerciality and profitability of their research and innovations. Some studies have found that researchers delay publication out of commercialization considerations, such as obtaining intellectual property protection before disclosing results. Others report that researchers will be more secretive about their research and withhold results because of the patent landscape and pressures to patent products that may emerge. Doing so would discourage and impede the advancement of knowledge – a key prerogative of the traditional university system – which therefore reduces the pursuit of scientific progress and in turn slows industrial innovation. Moreover, this has a negative effect to faculty who need input and research materials for the success of their research project. This issue is particularly pronounced in the clinical field, where an inhibitory effect on clinical practice and research has emerged accordingly. Patents and the proprietary nature of research materials have, studies show, been significantly detrimental to the ability of clinical laboratories to develop and provide genetic tests.

Evidence disputing these above worries is not as strong, as reports into the concerns have demonstrated results confirming their validity. Nonetheless, there are reasons to believe that researcher secrecy has been declining over the past years. As more university researchers file provisional patent applications in advance of formal patent applications, the incentive to postpone disclosure or delay publication has reduced. Furthermore, recent court decisions may prove far-reaching for access to proprietary research materials, positively affecting researchers developing drugs and genetic diagnostic tests. For example, in July 2011, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upheld that patents cannot apply to genetic diagnostic tests that only compare or analyze genetic sequences. Though overturning an earlier court decision that isolated gene sequences, because they are products of nature, are not patentable subject matter, further appeals on the matter are expected.

Beyond these concerns, there are questions about the roles and effects of university technology transfer offices (TTOS). TTOs are dedicated to identifying research with commercial interest, providing patent and commercialization support to researchers, assisting with marketability and funding sources, and serving as a liaison to industry partners. Many universities have channeled their innovation activities through their TTO. There are conflicting ideas and continuing debate on the role TTOs should play in promoting the launch of new firms, with some offices playing no role in start-ups while others are very involved in helping firms succeed. To that, though, some reports have found no effect on start-up rates from the presence of university incubators and whether a university is permitted to actively make venture capital investments in licensees.

However, some see that TTOs’ aggressive patenting and overvaluing of intellectual assets impedes university-industry collaboration, which in effect encourages companies to find other research partners. It is argued that some firms prefer foreign university partnerships because academic institutions abroad are less insistent on intellectual property ownership and complex agreements. Accordingly, universities may play a role in industrial decisions to offshore research and development activities. However, in rebuttal of that point, proponents of TTOs argue that others factors, such as research cost and skilled talent, are more significant in those decisions than attitudes towards academic institutions.

Nonetheless, the debate over the efficiency and structure of TTOs continues. While some are effective in disseminating inventions, others have become hindrances to technology transfer because of burdensome administration and bureaucracy. Touching on concerns related to the traditional university mission, some administrators have incentive to use TTOs as generators of revenue rather than focusing on transferring technologies, neglecting some inventions with little profit potential. Some see the monopolization of IP through TTOs and enhanced intellectual property rights at the early stages of research as a hindrance to the spread of scientific knowledge. These are indeed valid concerns; TTOs, through their commercialization mission and use as profit generators, are incentivized to operate in manners which may slow the spread of knowledge and create burdens on effective technology transfer. In response, ideas have been floated that address these concerns. Among them is to create an open, competitive licensing system for university technology – allowing faculty members to choose their own licensing agents, thereby increasing competition and speeding up commercialization. Others emphasize the need to move towards open source and open access technology dissemination.

Clearly, there are significant points of debate regarding the impact of university entrepreneurship on the system’s traditional missions of knowledge gathering, dissemination, and community outreach. Moreover, questions remain on the effectiveness of technology transfer through bureaucratic and administrative hindrance. Nonetheless, consensus surrounds the fact that the transfer of knowledge, through the support of academic research, plays an important role in economic growth. It may well be that universities, instead of coming into conflict with their traditional mission, are evolving into a new mission – knowledge factories that catalyze development, capability, and innovation within a larger innovation system. This mission synthesizes, and indeed requires the synthesis of, both their traditional and entrepreneurial roles, which perhaps may complement and reinforce each other. The debate surrounding university entrepreneurship today is an important stepping-stone and forum to resolve outstanding issues as that future is actualized. It lends credit and reinforcement to the continuing importance, regardless of commercial motives, of university focus on maximizing social impacts with technologies, innovation, and research that look beyond short-term profit and instead address what is best for society at large.

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