By now, most in the computing community are no doubt aware that Microsoft in September announced the closing of Microsoft Research Silicon Valley, one of 12 research labs (now 11) the company runs around the globe. The lab’s primary focus was on distributed computing and included research on privacy, security, protocols, fault-tolerance, large-scale systems, concurrency, computer architecture, Internet search and services, and related theory — work considered by many in the community to be exceptional. So it was with some surprise that researchers learned on September 18th that the lab would close the following day — part of new Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s workforce realignment strategy announced in July that will see the company ultimately shed 18,000 jobs by the end of the year.
Given the lab’s focus, the theoretical computer science community felt the sting of the closing particularly hard. Members of ACM’s SIGACT Committee for the Advancement of Theoretical Computer Science led an effort — an effort that ultimately grew beyond the SIGACT community — to send an open letter to Microsoft Executive Vice President for Technology and Research, Harry Shum and VPs for Research Peter Lee and Jeannette Wing, urging them to open a dialogue with the community about the closing and “reduce the damage that has been caused by the shutdown.” The letter was originally co-signed by 28 researchers and posted on the Theory Matters blog, and has garnered the support of many more in the blog’s comment section.
Tonight, Shum provides Microsoft’s perspective on the shutdown with a “Microsoft Open Letter to the Academic Research Community” posted on the Microsoft Research blog. In it, he reaffirms Microsoft’s commitment to fundamental research and its importance “for the long-term viability of our company, our industry and our society” and he pledges that Microsoft will play a part in community efforts to help those impacted by the cuts.
Both letters are worth reading. The dialogue between MSR and the academic community moving forward will be important to both sides. Despite the cuts, Microsoft Research remains one of the largest research institutions of its kind in the world, employing over 1,000 people, and the company still maintains 5 labs in the U.S. The connection between the company and the academic community is a critical part of advancing the field — a healthy MSR is important for the academic community, and a vigorous academic research community provides a healthy flow of people and ideas to MSR.
The group of universities, scientific societies, industry groups, and think tanks behind the 2014 Golden Goose Awards announced winners throughout the summer and pioneering computing researcher Larry Smarr is one of the recipients. As we’ve noted in previous years, the Golden Goose Awards “demonstrate the human and economic benefits of federally funded research by highlighting examples of seemingly obscure studies that have led to major breakthroughs and resulted in significant societal impact.” Another way to describe the awards is they are to show what “silly-sounding science” has given back to the country, and that return on investment is often very big and unanticipated.
You can read in detail about Dr. Smarr’s award backstory on the Golden Goose Awards website, but the gist is that in the early 1980s Dr. Smarr was performing modeling of black hole collisions in space, a wholly curiosity driven area of research. The modeling requires massive computing power, something not readily available to the American university community. Smarr became a strong advocate that the country invest more in supercomputing infrastructure available to the academic community, who otherwise had to fight to get time on machines devoted to defense applications like nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship. In response, the National Science Foundation established a set of university-based supercomputing centers for researchers across the country to use for their research purposes. These centers would form the basis of the NSFnet, one of the significant predecessors to the Internet (Smarr was a big proponent of establishing the NSFnet too). So, a curiosity about what happens when black holes collide helped unleash a revolution in computing power, computational science, and networking that, in turn helped establish visualization and modeling as drivers of scientific discovery (right alongside theory, observation and experiment) – not to mention the Internet as we know it, and the internet web browsers, both part of the success of the NSF supercomputing centers. And Larry Smarr had a key role in all of it.
The other recipients of the GGAs were a medical researcher team whose research into massaging rat pups led to treatments for premature infants, and a team of economists, whose research into auctions and game theory helped to raise billions of dollars for the U.S. Treasury through the FFCC spectrum auctions. It’s almost sport in Washington to find silly-sounding award abstracts and use them as a cudgel to bash science agencies for spending money, but these award winners are excellent examples of why the Federal investment in fundamental research is so important to innovation, that it pays off in extraordinary ways, and that it’s not so easy to judge the value of the award by its subject (or by the one paragraph abstract that accompanies it).
National Science Foundation Director France Córdova yesterday announced the appointment of James F. Kurose, UMass Amherst Professor and member of CRA’s Board of Directors, to serve as Assistant Director for the agency’s Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE). CISE is the “home” for computing research at the agency, which supports over 80 percent of all university-based fundamental computer science research in the U.S. Kurose will take over the position in January 2015.
Kurose is currently Distinguished Professor at UMass Amherst’s School of Computer Science, a position he’s held since 2004. He’s been a member of Advisory Committee for CISE, a visiting scientist at a number of industrial research labs, and has served as a member of the CRA Board of Directors for the last seven years.
CRA’s Chair, J Strother Moore, shared his perspective on the appointment with NSF:
“Jim Kurose is a fantastic choice for NSF CISE Assistant Director,” said J. Strother Moore, chair of the Computing Research Association Board of Directors, Inman Professor of Computing in the Computer Science Department of the University of Texas at Austin and former co-chair of the CISE advisory committee. “He has served on the CRA Board for seven years. He is thus very familiar with many issues in computing research and with the potential and broad impact of that research. We at CRA will miss his perspective and wisdom on the Board, but are thrilled that NSF has made such a superlative choice for CISE and the computing research community.”
Kurose takes over the helm of CISE from Farnam Jahanian, who is now VP for Research at Carnegie Mellon University after a successful 3 year stint as CISE AD. Jahanian did an excellent job positioning CISE at the center of many NSF-wide and government-wide research initiatives during his tenure. Kurose joins an agency led by a new director in Córdova and faces the challenge of making CISE as relevant to national research priorities for her as it was to previous NSF Director Subra Suresh.
But my own sense is that Kurose is more than up to the task. He’s been a highly effective and respected member of the CRA Board during his tenure, demonstrating an ability to listen to others thoughtfully, process input objectively, and drive successful projects. Those skills will suit him well in Ballston (and Alexandria, after NSF moves) and on the Hill. We certainly will do what we can to help and wish him the best of luck in his new role!