Latest PITAC Highlights

On June 18, 2004, in Policy, by Peter Harsha

The President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC) met for the third time since being reconstituted by President Bush in the Spring of 2003, approving a report (pdf) on Health Information Technology, getting an update on the progress of the subcommittee reviewing (pdf) federal cybersecurity R&D, and taking testimony for the subcommittee charged (pdf) with reviewing the current state of scientific computing.
The committee approved the final version of the subcommittee on health and information technology’s report without much discussion of the 12 recommendations. Progress has already been made in some of the areas highlighted by the committee. The President has already created, by executive order, a “National Health Information Technology Coordinator,” and appointed David J. Brailer, MD, Ph.D. , to fill the position. He’s also requested $100 million in funding for projects that demonstrate the promise of HIT, and has begun integrating events that highlight HIT into his campaign activities (as we’ve noted here previously).
The committee’s report is divided into two basic parts: 8 recommendations under the general theme of “Promoting the Electronic Health Record, Clinical Decision Support and Computerized Provider Order Entry”; and 4 additional recommendations concerning “Promoting secure, private, interoperable health information exchange.” Though the final version isn’t yet on the web, the draft version was approved virtually unchanged. More detail on the report in a future post.
The Cybersecurity panel didn’t have much to report as they’re still digesting the public testimony they took at the last PITAC meeting. They plan another public meeting of the subcommittee on July 29th, at which they’ll take testimony from representatives of DHS’s Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA — DHS’s version of DARPA), NIST, DARPA, Gartner, FBI, DOD’s DDR&E, and NSA. They’ll also hold a public “town hall meeting” in conjunction with the GovSec 2004 conference in Washington, DC, on July 29th.
The third portion — really the bulk of the meeting — was devoted to the first taking of testimony by the subcommittee on computational science. The committee heard from four witnesses: Erik Jakobsson, Director of the Center of Bioinformatics and Computational Biology at NIH; Michael Strayer, Director of SciDAC at DOE’s Office of Science; Arden Bement, Interim Director of NSF; Ken Kennedy, Rice University professor and former co-chair of the previous incarnation of PITAC. All three government witnesses provided some detail about their agency’s efforts in computation science.
Jakobsson explained why computational science is so important at NIH — it’s essential for understanding biological complexity (he quoted NIH Director Elias Zerhouni’s defense of computation science at NIH, “You can’t translate what you don’t understand.”) The main issue with computational biology at NIH is that while its success has made it integral in research supported by the agency, deficiencies in the software (primarily) and the hardware (less so) are now the “rate-limiters” in biological innovation and discovery. PITAC Co-chair Ed Lazowska sought to understand whether NIH’s appreciation of the importance of computational science in its research was reflected in support for research in fundamental computer science — something NIH had been loathe to support in the past. Jakobsson replied that some recent solicitations by the agency were designed to attract domain=independent computational science research, but that the verdict of whether or not they were successful in that endeavor was not yet in.
DOE Office of Science Director Ray Orbach was unable to attend, so Michael Strayer, Director of the Office’s Scientific Discovery Through Advanced Computation (SciDAC) attended in his stead. Strayer made a couple of interesting points about the character of DOE Office of Science research: “no filter” at SciDAC — no prohibitions against the participation of foreign-born students in SciDAC related research; more than 50 percent of SciDAC funding goes to university researchers, 65 percent of requests for time on DOE systems are from university-based researchers. Demand far exceeds available cycles, Stayer said, but DOE Office of Science is making the cycles available even at the sacrifice of some of their “core” DOE programs.
Arden Bement gave the standard NSF presentation on Cyberinfrastructure, but noted that NSF is concerned with finding the right balance between computer science, domain science and general research. Specifically, NSF hopes to grow current cyber efforts, including:

  • $60 million in FY 05 for supercomputer operations;
  • adding up to 50 teraflops in capacity to PSC in FY 05-06;
  • $10 million in training and mentoring grants;
  • restarting the HEC-University Research Activity; and
  • developing domain specific and generic computational science activities.

On this last point, Bement said he hopes NSF will expand its domain specific activities, and that domain independent research will continue to see its funding in CISE. Bement was also asked to compare the US’s current efforts to those of the Japanese — especially in light of the Japanese Earth Simulator. Bement noted he thought the Japanese have “reached the peak of what vector machines can do” and that “surpassing it will take hybrid machines. Bement said efforts in CISE will focus beyond the frontiers — quantum and DNA-based computing, for example.
Regarding the agency’s cyberinfrastructure plan, CISE AD Peter Freeman noted that the Atkins’ report, which included a lofty $1 billion recommended increase for cyberinfrastructure programs at NSF, was an important guiding document, but probably an unrealistic request given the current fiscal environment. However, if you consider the Atkins’ report to be “broader than just NSF” than we have a chance to reach that number in aggregate efforts of the various agencies — but it’s important that we coordinate better to better leverage the resources of the federal government.
The final witness was Ken Kennedy, Rice University professor and former co-chair of the PITAC committee at the time of the release of the 1999 Information Technology Research: Investing in Our Future report. He delivered a report card on the federal government’s achievements in IT R&D since that report. In short, his report raises some concerns about the composition, management and increasingly short-term focus of the federal effort. His slides are an excellent overview of the current situation, so I’ve posted them here with his permission. Well worth a read.
The next full meeting of PITAC will be October 12, 2004. At that time, I think we’ll see a draft report from the Cybersecurity subcommittee, and perhaps some additional activity by the computational science committee. Whatever the case, keep it tuned here for the details as they happen.