Computing Research Policy Blog
The Computing Research Association (CRA) has been involved in shaping public policy of relevance to computing research for more than two decades. More recently the CRA Government Affairs program has enhanced its efforts to help the members of the computing research community contribute to the public debate knowledgeably and effectively.
The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), an independent advisory group of the Nation’s leading scientists and engineers, released a report to the President today on semiconductor innovation, competitiveness, and security. Titled simply, “Ensuring Long-Term U.S. Leadership in Semiconductors,” the report looks at the challenges facing the semiconductor community and outlines recommendations for possible actions for the Federal Government to take in order to ensure US leadership in the field.
One of the main concerns brought up by the report is that the Chinese government has begun directing over a hundred billion dollars in a series of industrial policies in order to reshape the semiconductor market in its favor. With that in mind, the report’s two main findings, as pointed out in the executive summary, are noteworthy:
Our core finding is this: the United States will only succeed in mitigating the dangers posed by Chinese industrial policy if it innovates faster. Policy can, in principle, slow the diffusion of technology, but it cannot stop the spread. And, as U.S. innovators face technological headwinds, other countries’ quest to catch up will only become easier. The only way to retain leadership is to outpace the competition.
Second, we find that a competitive domestic industry is critical to innovation and security. We therefore recommend policies aimed at developing and attracting talent, funding basic research and development that is critical to innovation, reforming corporate tax laws, and reforming permitting practices.
In light of the changing of administrations that will happen in two weeks, one can hope that the new President and Congress will take this advice seriously and begin acting on it.
In a surprising move today, the House of Representatives passed S. 3084, “The American Innovation and Competitiveness Act.” We say surprising because the majority of House Members aren’t actually in town. The House remains in pro forma session – not officially adjourned for good (or sine die), just keeping enough presence in the chamber to prevent President Obama from making any recess appointments. But because they’re not actually adjourned, non-controversial bills have a chance to be considered under unanimous consent rules, even if most members aren’t around to vote on them. By agreement, only bills that aren’t objected to by any Member can be brought up during these pro forma sessions – and AICA apparently qualified, meaning the bill passed the House and will now be sent to the President for signature. The Senate had already passed S. 3084 on December 10th, also with unanimous consent.
Our regular readers will recall that the Senate Commerce Committee had passed their version of COMPETES back in June, while the House Science Committee passed their more controversial bill last year. CRA supported the Senate version but opposed the House bill. The language that is being sent to President Obama is a compromise bill but is predominantly the Senate version.
The first item of importance is what is not in the bill: authorized funding levels for NSF and NIST. This is both a good and bad development. It’s bad because we would like to see a strong statement from Congress on the importance of funding scientific research. On the flip side, and given the present environment in Congress on constraining federal spending, it’s probably good that there are not low funding levels passed into law. Also, chances are good that the only way this bill moved in the Senate (and cleared the House) is that it was silent on spending. So take this development as you will; the appropriations battle, which is separate from an authorization bill, will still need to be fought next year.
The bill also includes a reauthorization of the Networking and Information Technology Research and Development Program (or NITRD). The bill adds additional responsibilities to the program in the original High Performance Computing Act: “provide for research on the interplay of computing and people, including social computing and human-robot interaction;” “provide for research on cyber-physical systems and improving the methods available for the design, development, and operation of those systems that are characterized by high reliability, safety, and security;” “provide for the understanding of the science, engineering, policy, and privacy protection related to networking and IT;” and, “provide for the understanding of the human facets of cyber threats and secure cyber systems.” The bill also makes some descriptive changes to computing subfields; this is mainly in the interest of updating terminology to align better with what things are called in the discipline, and is in no way prescriptive.
The bill also adds two other sections from the House version — a section requiring NSF to report NSF-funded researchers who intentionally misrepresent results to other federal agencies, and a section authorizing the National Research Council to do a study of research reproducibility and recommend to NSF ways for improving rigor and transparency in scientific research.
Finally, the bill includes language authorizing a grant program in computer science education research, including research into models of pre-service preparation for teachers who will teach computer science and computational thinking, professional development, tools and models for teaching and learning aimed at increasing diversity and inclusion, and high-quality learning opportunities for teaching CS in poor, rural or tribal schools.
The final step for this bill to become law is for President Obama to sign it before the end of the year; seeing as this bill is in no way controversial, it’s likely to be signed immediately. The passage of this act caps a number of years of work from a lot of people in both chambers of Congress and the science advocacy community. At times very contentious, it’s good to see that the final outcome is something everyone is able to live with (and do so unanimously).
Late in the night on Friday December 9th, the Senate passed a buzzer-beater continuing resolution (or CR) to keep the Federal Government open and operating. The new deadline for us to watch is April 28th 2017, roughly four months from now. Passage of this legislation sets up an interesting first half of the year for Congress, as they will have an overflowing plate of items to work on: a Supreme Court vacancy to fill, Trump Administration cabinet positions to confirm, and a debt limit to deal with at the end of February. Adding the Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 budget to the mix is a lot, and there is a possibility of a dreaded year-long CR. Keeping Federal funding at FY 2016 levels for all of Fiscal Year 2017 (which began on Oct 1st 2016) would be an effective cut due to inflation.
As the name implies, the CR will fund the government at FY 2016 levels. There are exceptions to this, as the bill that was passed includes new funds for the 21st Century Cures Act (H.R.34), as well as other increases at the Defense Department and water infrastructure aid to Flint Michigan. The 21st Century Cures Act would receive $872 million for health research; with some going to CS-related initiatives, such as the NIH-NSF BRAIN Initiative, which fall under the new NIH Innovation Projects account. So a small victory for the science researcher community in this bill.
But on the larger scale, this does create more uncertainty for how the final Fiscal Year 2017 will end up. To add to the concern, how this will impact next year’s budget, FY 2018, is an open question; will Congress have enough bandwidth to handle two budgets in one year? We’ll keep watching and will report back as things unfold.
Computer scientists from industry, government and academia today told a Senate panel that artificial intelligence (AI) has passed an inflection point — a confluence of the enormous increase in the availability of data, the ability of computers to perceive the world, and the ability to search over a wide range of possibilities — that promises to spawn new waves of innovation in applications of the technology. Those applications are likely to reshape our world in beneficial, but potentially disruptive ways, panel members explained, and so the Federal government ought to ramp up its investments in fundamental research, encourage more students to pursue computing careers, and buttress efforts to evaluate the security, safety, and ethics of the technology.
The scientists presented their testimony at a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness. Appearing at the hearing were:
- Eric Horvitz, head of Microsoft Research Redmond and co-Chair of the new Partnership for AI (and a former member of CRA’s Computing Community Consortium Council);
- Andrew Moore, Dean of the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon (and member of the CRA Government Affairs Committee);
- Greg Brockman, Cofounder and Chief Technology Officer at OpenAI;
- Steve Chien, Senior Research Scientist in Autonomous Space Systems at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), chaired the hearing and opened by comparing the disruptive potential of AI to the Industrial Revolution, Henry Ford’s assembly line, the invention of flight, and the Internet, noting that “many believe that there may not be a single technology that will shape our world more in the next 50 years than artificial intelligence.” Cruz, echoed by other members of the subcommittee, cited concerns about whether the U.S. would continue to lead development in the area, or if competition by an increasingly capable “China, Russia, or other foreign government” would put the U.S. at a technological disadvantage, with implications for both economic competitiveness and our national security.
The panel agreed that the U.S. couldn’t afford to cede leadership in the area. But while there are enormous opportunities in AI, they noted there are also some important challenges that need continued focus. For Moore, the key problem “keeping [him] up at night” is a workforce challenge. “We need to be training a million of the nation’s high schoolers to be ready to join this industry,” Moore testified. “And we must retrain existing technologists who are not up to speed on AI.” Asked by full committee Chair John Thune (R-SD) how we win this “talent war” to keep leadership in the U.S., Moore responded that he thought it began in middle school, by encouraging more students to learn mathematics and science.
For Brockman, the challenge he noted is the need to continue focus on developing fundamental building blocks of AI. Likening the development of AI to the development of the integrated circuit, he explained that we’re at “vacuum-tube level,” but that the Federal government was well-positioned to help push innovation forward. In particular, Brockman recommended the government focus on basic research in the fields enabling AI, an increase in the use of public contests and measurements for gauging our AI capabilities (and spurring competition to improve them), and coordination of work on the security, safety and ethics of AI.
Horvitz noted the huge number of areas that stood to benefit from AI — in health care, in transportation, in education, in critical infrastructures and national defense, to name just a few — but noted other challenges to innovations there. He noted that we had to continue to focus on designing systems that complement human abilities and intellect, rather than replace them. He noted that AI systems will need more transparency in their reasoning if they’re going to be trusted by users — users will want to understand why the system is making a particular recommendation rather than trusting something that emerges from some black box. And he noted that the challenges of cyber security are heightened in the often very modular world of AI systems, especially in high-stakes, safety critical applications.
There was some discussion of the dangers of AI systems — Cruz at one point invoked SkyNet and asked if Elon Musk’s concern that we might be “summoning the demon” was justified. The panel agreed that there isn’t an imminent threat given the current state of the art — Moore explained that AI systems are at best “idiot savants” that can only be focused on very specific ranges of data. But all also agreed that now was the time to start thinking about those issues. Horvitz noted that it’s useful to really push our vision of what bad things could be possible in order thwart them. “The things we do today are really important,” Horvitz said, so a focus on ethics and security is justified. Moore noted that the academic community felt the same way and explained that ethics and responsibility are a key part of the CMU AI curriculum.
But the recurring theme of the hearing was enabling the positive waves of innovation likely to flow from AI, and the primary recommendation the committee heard many times was the importance of the Federal investment in basic research in the area. Open, fundamental research is the fuel for the innovation ecosystem, an ecosystem that’s likely to bring trillions of dollars in return on investment, and likely on a timescale shorter than we think. Members seemed particularly interested in removing barriers to innovation and the adoption of the technologies, noting that technology moves much faster than policy, and so perhaps the time to study the policies is now. Cruz noted that he thought that this was the first congressional hearing on AI, but certainly wouldn’t be the last.
Copies of the hearing charter, the Chairman’s opening statement, and witness testimony are all available at the committee website. If a video archive of the hearing becomes available, we’ll link to it here, too.
Yesterday, the White House announced that President Obama named 21 recipients of the 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom. Of note to our community, the group contained a number of computing pioneers; specifically, Grace Hopper (a posthumous awardee), Bill and Melinda Gates, and Margaret H. Hamilton. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian award (along with the Congressional Gold Medal) that the United States bestows, and is awarded to, “any person who has made an especially meritorious contribution to (1) the security or national interests of the United States, or (2) world peace, or (3) cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
Grace Hopper is, of course, a legend within the computer science community. As the White House press release notes, Admiral Hopper’s work, “helped make coding languages more practical and accessible, and she created the first compiler, which translates source code from one language into another.” It’s hard to underestimate the role she played in bringing computing into our society’s everyday world.
Bill and Melinda Gates’ award is more tied to their philanthropic work through their foundation. However, they have not shied away from work within the education sphere (Mr. Gates’ work on CS education is of specific note), and they have worked to, “ensure that all people—especially those with the fewest resources—have access to the opportunities they need to succeed in school and life.”
Finally, Margaret H. Hamilton, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a number of companies that she founded, is being acknowledged for her work leading the team that, “created the on-board flight software for NASA’s Apollo command modules and lunar modules.” A truly remarkable person and a pioneering computer scientist, she also coined the term “software engineering” and made many software advances that, “set the foundation for modern, ultra-reliable software design and engineering.”
It’s great to see computer scientists get such prominent recognition for their life’s work! It makes one wonder how many computer scientists will be in the next generation of national awardees.
It’s taken a little longer to write up this analysis because it’s taken us a bit longer to start wrapping our heads around what happened. It’s not that it was hard to imagine a Trump victory, but a Trump victory *and* the GOP holding Congress…that seemed pretty inconceivable based on polling and the conventional wisdom. But that’s where we stand.
As you can imagine, there’s quite a bit of fog surrounding the shape of what’s to come, but what follows is our best attempt at sussing out the current landscape and our place in it.
How will Trump Treat Science?
We don’t know for sure. It’s probably a safe bet that the most obvious likely difference could be in the prominence science plays in his White House. We’ve seen 8 years of nearly unprecedented prominence for science policy issues at the presidential level: a suite of presidential or national-scale science initiatives; a well-staffed, proactive Office of Science and Technology Policy; a Science Advisor with the ear of the President; an active and well-supported President’s Council for Advisors on Science and Technology. Trump hasn’t given much indication throughout his campaign that he would place the same priority on his science efforts. He has commented only a few times on science policy, and thinking about those quotes and making some assumptions about the type of folks friendly to his campaign who might be tapped to serve in science roles in his Administration could give us some indications about what we’re in for:
On the plus side, from the limited evidence we have, we can guess the Trump Administration will have a fairly conventionally Conservative view of the importance of the Federal role in supporting fundamental research in the “hard” sciences, including computing. He’s on record suggesting that investments “in research and development across the broad landscape of academia” deserve some priority, even though there are increasing demands to curtail spending to balance the federal budget. He believes that scientific advances do require long term investment, and that we “must have programs such as a viable space program and institutional research that serve as incubators to innovation and the advancement of science and engineering in a number of fields.” He’s also expressed a strong interest in removing the regulatory barriers and barriers to entry for entrepreneurs and innovators. In this respect, we’ll do ok because we know there’s a strong economic/competitiveness/national security case for computing research.
- We perhaps ought to be concerned that he would likely support efforts by the House Science Committee majority to renew their attacks on the social sciences, environmental and climate change research. It’s possible/likely that we’ll see a renewal of efforts to defund NSF’s SBE directorate and redistribute that funding to the “harder” sciences as they’ve proposed in the recent past. He’s already singled out DOE spending on climate change initiatives as a potential place for cost-cutting. It’s also possible that we’ll see renewed scrutiny of science funded by NSF and other agencies, as a way of rooting out “silly-sounding science” and other instances of waste, fraud and abuse to demonstrate good stewardship of taxpayer dollars.
It’s also possible that science won’t rise to his level of attention. His agenda for the start of his term is packed with controversial actions: dismantling Obamacare, building the wall/border security/immigration reform; new substantial investments in infrastructure; renegotiating trade agreements; reforming the tax code. Science might receive “benign neglect” from him for the foreseeable future, which might not be terrible.
What does Full GOP Control Mean for Science?
The consolidation of GOP power has obvious implications for appropriations and authorizations. Going forward, the GOP can’t claim that obstruction by the Dems is hindering their efforts, so we may actually see something close to regular order in the appropriations process (as opposed to a more brinksmanship-based approach, where looming deadlines force compromises that result in last-minute omnibus bills). That’s good, in that it gives us a few more opportunities each cycle to have some influence on the final shape of the legislation. But it also means that Republicans will drive the prioritizing. We do still have GOP champions for science in both the House and Senate, and much of the efforts of the science advocacy community over the next few months will be targeted at bolstering those folks to defend science agencies in the FY 17 bills, and in what’s likely to be an even more tightly-capped FY18 cycle.
Of immediate concern is the final resolution of the FY17 appropriations cycle. Prior to the election, the conventional wisdom was that congressional leaders would back an omnibus bill during the lame-duck session before the current continuing resolution expires on Dec 9th. However, it now appears that the Republican leadership would prefer to pass a CR that postpones further work on appropriations until March or April of next year, giving the new Administration time to get up to speed. Of *key* concern, especially in the FY18 appropriations cycle which gets underway in February, is the desire of the GOP and Trump to relax the budget caps currently in place on defense spending. These are the caps backed by the sequester established by the 2011 Budget Control Act. The GOP argues that these caps are now unrealistic and are hurting our military and would like to see defense spending ramped up by some percentage. However, the GOP doesn’t want to increase overall spending to pay for the defense increase, and so any increase in defense discretionary spending would need to be offset by cuts to non-defense discretionary spending — a pot of money which includes agencies like NSF, NIST, NOAA, NASA, DOE and NIH. We will be reaching out to our champions and working with our coalition partners in the advocacy community to make the case that investments in research in these non-defense accounts ought to be prioritized, not cut.
On the authorizations side, it’s not clear that the election has changed the calculus very much between the Senate and the House concerning their differences on things like the America COMPETES reauthorization. The Senate is still seen as the bulwark against the more contentious provisions coming out of the House, including resurrected provisions defunding SBE or placing further review and oversight over NSF’s grant-making process.
So for those worried about the impact of a Trump administration on computing research policy, it’s not exactly time to get on the ledge. There’s a lot of inertia in federal agencies; the ship of state rarely turns on a dime. There may be a whole host of reasons for worry about the new administration, but we think we’re in a pretty good position to contend with this whole new world in science policy.
As the fog continues to lift on the final shape of a Trump science administration, we’ll have all the details here.
Back in January the Computer Science Teacher Association (CSTA), the Association of Computer Machinery (ACM), and Code.org announced an initiative to develop a K-12 Computer Science Framework for use throughout the country’s education system. The plan was to develop a high level framework, not education standards, that states and school districts could use to create individual CS curriculums for their needs and wants. On Monday, the group, which now includes Cyber Innovation Center and the National Math and Science Initiative, announced that they had completed their work and made the framework public.
The K-12 CS Framework, “represents a vision in which all students engage in the concepts and practices of computer science.” The idea driving the development of this initiative is not to cover everything that a student can learn in a CS classroom, but, to help students, “develop a foundation of computer science knowledge and learn new approaches to problem solving that harness the power of computational thinking to become both users and creators of computing technology.” Given that both parents and students have been clamoring for more CS classes in their schools, and that the question of “What is computer science?” has not been well defined, this framework is a much welcomed endeavor. In fact, CRA is one of many organizations and companies to endorse the K-12 CS Framework.
In an advertisement that ran in the New York Times on September 26, and in Friday’s Wall Street Journal, 39 CEOs and top executives of American companies argued that federally supported scientific research is, “an investment in our prosperity, security, and well-being.”
The ad points out that without federally supported research, we would not have such things as smart phones, the internet, or microprocessors, to name but a few of the examples cited. Some of the companies whose leaders signed the advertisement are members of the Task Force on American Innovation, a coalition which CRA is a member. The Task Force is a coalition of science organizations, American colleges and universities, and high-tech companies, which supports federally-funded scientific research and promote its benefits to America’s economy, security, and quality of life. The advertisement has the full list of signatories, some of which are well known to our community, such as Norm Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin, and Meg Whitman, President and CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprises.
The ad was sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center.
First, the good news: the government won’t have to shut down on Saturday, as Congressional leaders have agreed to a continuing resolution (CR) through December 9. As our regular readers will remember, the Fiscal Year 2016 budget year runs from October 1 2015 to September 30 2016 and if Congress has not passed a budget or a CR by this Saturday October 1, federal agencies must stop operations. The last government shutdown happened back in 2013 but we’ve been dealing with the potential of one every year since. The agreed to CR puts funding for federal agencies generally, and science research accounts specifically, on autopilot at Fiscal Year 2016 levels.
Now, the bad news: this in no way clears up how Fiscal Year 2017 (the budget that will technically start on Saturday) will end up looking. First, no Federal agencies will get any new money until a final budget is determined. Secondly, it doesn’t guarantee a finished budget in December. All eyes are now on how the election unfolds in November: if Democrats retake the Senate and/or the House, Congressional Republicans may want to tackle a budget now while they are in power. However, if Republicans retain either, or both, chambers, and potentially retake the White House, they may want to punt the budget to next year when they are in a stronger position. Given the added complications of the Freedom Caucus, who want major cuts in Federal spending and who have been a continuing problem for Republican Congressional leaders, only time will tell what happens.
Stay tuned, as we will have the latest developments for the Fiscal Year 2017 on our blog.
Do you have expertise in technological issues? Are you interested in how legislation impacts tech issues? There’s a Congressional fellowship for you! Tech Congress, an organization that, “brings tech talent, ideas and training to Congress…to build a practical and pragmatic understanding of Washington within the tech community,” is accepting applications for its 2017 class of Congressional Innovation Fellows.
The Congressional Innovation Fellowship is a program to inject, “desperately needed technological expertise into the Legislative Branch.” To that end, Tech Congress provides benefits and assistance in placement in a Congressional personal or committee office. The program is geared for, “early – mid career technology professionals to get hands on experience working in Congress and learn about the policymaking process.”
Tech Congress’ website has detailed information on what they’re looking for in applicants. If you’re interested in the intersection of public policy and technology, this is a great opportunity to pursue.
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