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.

Trump Budget Blueprint Slashes Science, Boosts Defense


President Trump today released his “budget blueprint to make America great again” that calls on Congress to boost Defense spending by $54 billion in FY 2018 and offset that increase by slashing non-defense spending an equal amount. As a result, the budget request would make deep cuts to Federal research agencies and eliminate other popular programs entirely.

This budget is short on details — the President will release a more traditional, detailed budget in early to mid-May — but what is included will not breed much faith that the new Administration sees much value in federal investments in research.

“Highlights”:

    • NIH would be cut by *$6 billion* — that’s a fifth of its current budget

    • DOE’s Office of Science would see a cut of $900 million…that’s nearly a fifth. No details yet on the Advanced Scientific Computing Research. Eliminates ARPA-E.

    • EPA’s budget is down a third. Cuts Office of R&D in half.

    • NASA would lose the entire education office and $102 million of the earth science budget (including 4 climate change programs)

    • NSF isn’t mentioned by name, but is probably included in the “other agencies” category, with an expected cut of ~10 percent.

    • Cuts $250 million from coastal research programs at NOAA and eliminates the $73 million Sea Grant Program;

    • Eliminates funding to the Manufacturing Extension Partnership at NIST

    • Cuts $9.2 billion at the Department of Education

    • Department of Defense would see a 10 percent increase.

    • Department of Homeland Security would see a 7 percent increase

The budget also includes ~$4 billion for a southern border wall; eliminates funding for National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities; eliminates funding for the Institute of Museum and Library Services; eliminates funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; eliminates funding for the Legal Services Corporation; eliminates funding for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Though this budget appears pretty objectively bad for the research community, keep in mind this is only the President’s proposal. Congress will ultimately decide how these programs are funded, and there is significant opposition to many of these cuts on both sides of the aisle. The final budget will likely not look much like this one. However, as a starting point for the negotiations, this one is pretty poor.

We’ll have more details on the budget as the specifics become available over the next weeks and months. We’ll also detail some of the steps that the computing research community is taking to urge Congress and the Administration to protect America’s leadership role in innovation by buttressing investments in science. We’ll be making the case that ensuring that America remains tops in global competitiveness and job creation requires maintaining a healthy and robust research ecosystem in the U.S., and a key part of that ecosystem is the federal role in supporting basic research. Indeed, there have been few investments the federal government has ever made that have provided bigger return than the investment in fundamental research. Research investments need to be a priority, not a target of cuts as they are in this request.

House Science Committee Releases Views & Estimates for FY 2018; Prioritizes Computing at Expense of SBE Again


Last Friday, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) sent the committee’s Views and Estimates (V&Es) for the coming fiscal year to the House Budget Committee. This is required by law and is meant to give the Congressional authorizing committees, the ones who set policy, rather than direct funding, a chance to state their goals for the Federal departments and agencies that are under their jurisdiction. This year, once again, the Science Committee is prioritizing computing at the National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Energy (DOE), and the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST), while de-prioritizing research at the Social, Behavioral, & Economic (SBE) sciences and Geosciences (GEO) directorates within NSF and biological and environmental research at DOE.

Like last year’s V&Es, the Science Committee is calling for NSF’s research funding to be split so that 70 percent of the agency’s funding goes to CISE, Engineering, Math & Physical Sciences, and Biology directorates. That would mean about a 5 percent increase (collectively) for those directorates and a 5 percent decrease to all the other programs in the agency’s Research & Related Activities (R&RA) account, including SBE and GEO. Depending on how prescriptive the committee chooses to be (or the appropriators choose to be), they could make SBE and GEO take a disproportionate share of that decrease to protect some of the other programs in R&RA like arctic research, integrative activities, or international science and engineering.

While it may sound great that computing research could get a boost in funding, it’s important to realize that several key areas of computing, such as cybersecurity and human-computer interaction (HCI), are heavily informed by research in the SBE directorate. This is why CRA didn’t endorse the Science Committee’s version of the COMPETES Act reauthorization in 2015.

With regard to the Department of Energy, the Committee bases much of its goals on the DOE Energy Research and Innovation Act, which passed the House back in January. Again, computing is stated as a priority of the committee, with the Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR) program, where the Federal government’s exascale computing programs resides, getting special mention. Along with ASCR, Basic Energy Sciences (BES) and Fusion Sciences are also prioritized. Increases at these programs would be offset at the expense of the Biological and Environmental Research (BER) in the Office of Science, and the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) and ARPA-E accounts.

The good news is that these are just indications of what the majority on the Science Committee will be pushing for as they try and reauthorize NSF and work with appropriators during the appropriations process this year. They had similar language in the V&Es last year, which didn’t get much traction with appropriators. As well, it’s unclear how much will there is in Congress generally to approve an NSF authorization with language this prescriptive about funding. We should have a better idea once the President releases his full budget for FY 2018 (currently scheduled for May) and see how Congressional leaders respond to it.

Travel Ban v. 2.0


On Monday, President Trump issued a new executive order designed to suspend immigration to the U.S. from six countries considered either state-sponsors of terrorism or homes to terrorist activities, for 90 days beginning March 16, 2017. Like the President’s previous order, the new order halts visa issuance to nationals of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen (Iraq is not included in the revised order), and it exempts nationals from those countries who already have approved visas or who have permanent residence status in the U.S.

CRA issued a statement opposing the President’s first order on January 27, 2017, arguing that the order would create uncertainty and hardship for many students and researchers already studying and working at U.S. institutions. We also argued that the ban would likely discourage foreign-born researchers from bringing their talents to the U.S. in the future, significantly hurting our national competitiveness.

While we retain these concerns about the new order, certain exceptions could alleviate the immediate impacts on current researchers and students. In addition to exempting travelers who already have visas permanent residency status, the order adds exceptions to be considered under a case-by-case waiver system. There are nine such exceptions, but the first four seem most relevant to the computing research community:

(i)   the foreign national has previously been admitted to the United States for a continuous period of work, study, or other long-term activity, is outside the United States on the effective date of this order, seeks to reenter the United States to resume that activity, and the denial of reentry during the suspension period would impair that activity;

(ii)   the foreign national has previously established significant contacts with the United States but is outside the United States on the effective date of this order for work, study, or other lawful activity;

(iii)   the foreign national seeks to enter the United States for significant business or professional obligations and the denial of entry during the suspension period would impair those obligations;

(iv)   the foreign national seeks to enter the United States to visit or reside with a close family member (e.g., a spouse, child, or parent) who is a United States citizen, lawful permanent resident, or alien lawfully admitted on a valid nonimmigrant visa, and the denial of entry during the suspension period would cause undue hardship;

In particular, exception (iii) appears to apply to new incoming students, visiting faculty or participants in academic or professional conferences, although only on a case-by-case basis. If so, these exceptions would help mitigate negative effects on our community, although clarification is clearly needed. We hope the administration will provide that clarification soon.

Even with these possible exceptions, the ban sends a message that will discourage talented researchers and students from around the world from traveling to the U.S. As noted in our original statement, the U.S. enjoys its leadership role in science and technology in part because the world’s best and brightest bring their talents here to be a part of U.S. scholarship and innovation. Policies that discourage the world’s best science and engineering talent from coming to the U.S. threaten our leadership in science and engineering. We urge the Administration to clarify how the exceptions policy will be implemented and to ensure that the order is truly temporary.

New Report on US Research Investment: “The Future Postponed 2.0”


In an op-ed published in the Hill newspaper, the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the chair of the National Science Board announced the release of a new report on the impacts of inadequate funding for scientific research in the United States. The report, titled “The Future Postponed 2.0: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens a U.S. Innovation Deficit,” is the follow-on of a report released in April of 2015 on the same topic. The report makes the case that not committing enough funding to scientific research will mean breakthroughs in the sciences will happen outside the United States, and those countries will reap the benefits.

The report makes its argument using a number of case studies of promising early-stage research. Here are just a few examples cited:

  • Creating a Census of Human Cells – “New techniques make possible a systematic description of the myriad types of cells in the human body that underlie both health and disease;”
  • The Origin Of The Universe – “Measuring tiny variations in the cosmic microwave background will enable major discoveries about the origin of the universe, including details of its early expansion and of physical phenomena at energies a trillion times greater than those of the largest earthbound accelerators;”
  • Unleashing The Power Of Synthetic Proteins – “Potential breakthroughs in medicine, energy, and technology;”

As federal research agencies, and by extension the scientific research community, continue to be impacted by the ongoing budget impasse in Congress, it’s well worth reminding both Congressional leaders, and the public at large, that scientific funding has helped the country tremendously since the end of World War II (a point also made in the above op-ed and report). This report will be an excellent new tool for the research community to further its message.

CRA Expresses Concern at New Executive Order Suspending Visas


The Computing Research Association released the following statement in response to President Trump’s new Executive Order, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States”:

January 27, 2017

CRA Statement in Response to White House Executive Order:
“Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States”

As an organization representing the leading academic and industrial computing research institutions in the United States, the Computing Research Association expresses great concern over President Donald J. Trump’s Executive Order imposing a 90-day suspension of visas to nationals of seven countries.

The United States has benefited greatly from the contributions to our field and to our nation of individuals from all nations, including those covered in today’s order. This order creates uncertainty and potential hardship among current students and researchers already here making important contributions and endangers our leadership role in a key field. Today’s order may also discourage foreign-born researchers from bringing their talents to the U.S. in the future, which would have significantly detrimental impacts on our national competitiveness.

The U.S. enjoys its leadership role in science and technology in part because the world’s best and brightest bring their talents here to be a part of U.S. scholarship and innovation. In critical areas, protections are already in place to prevent the spread of sensitive technologies.

We urge the President to lift the visa suspension at or before the 90-day deadline and not curtail the studies or contributions of these students and researchers.

Update (1/30/17): The statement was quoted by the New York Times in a piece on how the high tech computing industry is reacting to the executive order.

As an illustration of the potential unintended impacts that the President’s executive order can have on scientific research, it’s worth reading this article from the Atlantic.

Update (1/31/17): 152 organizations, including CRA, signed onto a letter, organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), to President Trump voicing their concerns about the impacts the executive order would have on the broader scientific community. The letter was copied to Congressional leaders of both parties. The signers represent, “a broad spectrum of professional scientific, engineering and education societies, national associations, and universities.”

Update (2/2/17): A number of member societies of CRA have made public similar statements against President Trump’s executive order, echoing similar concerns in our statement. They include USENIX, ACM, SIAM, and IEEE-CS. As more groups release statements and positions, we will update this post.

House Passes DOE Energy Research and Innovation Act


On Tuesday, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 589, the Department of Energy Research and Innovation Act. Predominantly a policy bill for DOE, the Act provides direction for the Department on, “basic science research, nuclear energy research and development (R&D), research coordination and priorities, and reforms to streamline national lab management.” The bill is the energy section of the Competes Act, which passed in December during the end of the 114th Congress’ session. Similar to its sister legislation, H.R. 589 passed without objection on the House floor; it now heads to the Senate for consideration and expected passage.

As for how this impacts the computing community, DOE’s Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR) program, where the majority of the Department’s computing research occurs, is specifically mentioned in Title III, Section 304. In that section, ASCR is directed to build a, “research program…for exascale computing, including the development of 2 or more exascale computing machine architectures, to promote the missions of the Department,” and to do so in partnership with industry and institutions of higher learning. The section also directs the program director to, “support research in high-performance computing and networking relevant to energy applications, including modeling, simulation, and advanced data analytics for basic and applied energy research programs.” Finally, section 304 also directs the program to develop, test, and support: “mathematics, models, and algorithms for complex systems and programming environments; and…tools, languages, and operating systems for high-end computing systems.”

The Act also handles issues such as technology transfer (Section 106), commercialization of research findings (Section 107), and laboratory improvement program for the National Lab system. (Section 309); all Congressional priorities.

Due to pre-passage negotiations and agreements, the bill is expected to pass the Senate quickly and without controversy. We will update this post when that happens; the bill should be signed into law by the President soon after.

PCAST Releases Report on Ensuring US Leadership in Semiconductors


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.

And:

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.

Unexpectedly, House passes COMPETES Act Reauthorization, including NITRD Authorization; Bill Sent to President for Signature!


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).

Senate Passes Continuing Resolution, Punting FY 2017 Budget to End of April


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.

Senate Committee Examines the “Dawn of Artificial Intelligence”


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.

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