So, while the Senate Armed Services Committee generally has been very supportive of the idea that there’s much value to the nation and the Department of Defense in a DARPA that funds long-term, risky research, the House Armed Services Committee hasn’t been quite so enamored with that position. In the committee report accompanying the House version of the FY 2006 Defense Authorization Act (HR 1815) that passed the House yesterday, the committee lays out its short-term vision for the agency:

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been a leader and innovator in basic scientific research and defense science and technology for decades. Originally chartered to prevent technological surprise, DARPA promotes revolutionary technology innovations by focusing on high-risk, high-payoff technologies that offer new military capabilities and complement the military departments’ nearer-term science and technology programs. The committee has supported ever increasing funding for DARPA as the only agency not tied to a military service mission and the demands of a service budget to produce quick results. Recognizing that some of DARPA’s high-risk programs may not be successful, the committee encourages DARPA to continue its focus on the development, demonstration, and transition of high-risk, high-payoff technology to the military departments and to U.S. industry.
At the same time, the committee recognizes that the pursuit of the more futuristic technologies must be tempered by the hard fact that we are a nation at war and our armed forces have immediate needs for innovative technical solutions across a variety of disciplines. The committee commends DARPA on its quick reaction support and fielding of advanced innovative technologies to meet emerging critical operational needs of our forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom and elsewhere in support of the global war on terrorism.
The committee believes DARPA should continue to redirect some of its more futuristic efforts to the solution of today’s combat problems. Those immediate needs involving detection, sensing, protection, surveillance, and a host of other issues that may well be `DARPA hard’ problems that the Agency should be examining, rather than some of the more futuristic efforts in the DARPA program. Therefore, although the committee is pleased with the overall progress in the defense science and technology program, the committee believes that increased priority must continue to be given to the nearer-term requirements of the combatant commanders and U.S. armed forces in the field.

As we, and others, have noted, DARPA’s long-range vision and willingness to place big bets in university-led, high-risk, high-reward areas of research have have been responsible for a large share of the innovations that drive the U.S. economy and have made our military the most lethal and effective fighting force in history. This vision survived the Vietnam War and the constant pressure of the Cold War. There’s no doubt that DARPA can do much to contribute to solving today’s combat problems, and it may indeed be appropriate for the agency’s focus to shift in that direction. But it is critically important that there remain a home for long-range research vision focused on defense problems somewhere in the federal research portfolio. Failing to invest in the future leaves the country at the risk of suffering the technological surprise DARPA was originally chartered to prevent.

 

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Science, Commerce, Justice, State marked-up it’s FY 2006 appropriations bill earlier today and included increases for NSF and NASA. Details are a little sparse until we see the full committee print next week, but here are the early figures:
NSF would increase 3.1% — $171 million over FY 2005, $38 million more than the President’s request — to $5.64 billion. NSF’s research accounts would grow $157 million over FY 05 to $4.38 billion, and education and human resources would fall to $807 million, from $841 million in FY 05 — but $70 million over the President’s request.
NASA would receive $15 million more than the President’s request, and $40 million that had been cut from the angecy’s aeronautics program in the budget request will be restored.
NIST reportedly would receive $549 million, including $106 million for the controversial Manufacturers Extension Partnership program. (No word on ATP).
We’ll have more details after the bill moves to the full Appropriations committee next week and the committee report accompanying the bill (and explaining the cuts and increases) is published.

 

The Chronicle of Higher Ed today has coverage (free until 6/2 apparently) of the May 12th House Science Committee hearing on “The Future of Computer Science Research in the U.S.” that’s generally pretty good. But it makes an odd point at the end that doesn’t accurately represent what went on at the hearing. Here’s the paragraph:

[DARPA Director Tony] Tether challenged Mr. [Tom] Leighton [, co-founder and Chief Scientist at Akamai Industries] and Mr. [Bill] Wulf [, President of the National Academies of Engineering] to supply examples of important projects that the agency has refused to support, and they did not immediately offer any. That shows, Mr. Tether said, that the agency’s priorities are properly placed.

At the end of the 2 hour, 19 minute hearing, in response the committee’s very last question, Tether told the panel that in dealing with the university computer science community he saw “a lot of hand-wringing” but didn’t get many “actionable ideas” from the community. Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert then turned to Wulf and Leighton and asked if they could take that as a challenge and provide a list to the committee and to Tether. Both responded that they’d be happy to and Boehlert noted that he’d make that part of the post-hearing questions that will be put to the witnesses (and noted the challenge in his press release).
I understand both Wulf and Leighton are eager to respond to the challenge. Leighton told me after the hearing that he was getting ready to wave the PITAC report on Cyber Security R&D as a start (the focus of much of his testimony), which contains specific recommendations in 10 areas of cyber security research currently under-supported. Both Leighton and Wulf will be reaching out to the community to craft a list that will be most useful to DARPA and DOD and most responsive to the committee’s request (which hasn’t yet been received, as far as I know). There are plenty of resources from which to draw — PITAC’s Cyber Report, Defense Science Board, CRA’s Grand Challenges conferences, National Academies reports, etc.
The idea that either Wulf or Leighton were dumbstruck by the question is just wrong, and the idea that the community lacks an adequate response to the committee’s challenge is equally wrong.
Otherwise, the article does a decent job of summarizing the hearing. From my perspective, the hearing was incredibly useful. I could spend a lot of space here dissecting the testimony of Marburger and Tether — though frequent readers of the blog won’t need my dissection to spot the points of contention in both sets of testimony. Tether essentially argued in his oral testimony (and half of his written testimony) that DARPA has reduced its funding for university-led computer science research because maybe it’s focusing on multi-disciplinary research now; something Tether apparently deduced by looking at university web pages, he says. But in the appendix to his testimony, he provides the response to the same question he gave to the Senate Armed Services Committee, compiled by the DARPA comptroller, which includes these five reasons for the shift:
1. A change in emphasis in the high performance computing program from pure research to supercomputer construction;
2. Significant drop in unclassified information security research;
3. End of TIA-related programs in FY 2004 due to congressional decree, a move that cost universities “a consistent $11-12 million per year” in research funding;
4. Research into intelligent software had matured beyond the research stage into integration;
5. Classified funding for computer science-related programs increased markedly between FY 2001 and FY 2004, but Universities received none of this funding.
From my perspective, having the DARPA director stand before the committee (literally) and affirm that the agency has significantly reduced its support for university-led, long-range computing research was very useful. The community can raise concerns about DARPA’s priorities, but ultimately it’s up to the Director and the Administration to set them as they see fit. What’s more important to me is that the impact of DARPA’s (now undisputed) withdrawal on the overall IT R&D enterprise be adequately assessed and addressed. The gap that DARPA leaves is substantial — both in terms of monetary support and in losing a funding model that has contributed so much to the extraordinarily productive environment for innovation that is the computing research community. NSF is great at what it does — funding individual investigators and research infrastructure at universities — but there was substantial value from DARPA’s approach of focusing on particular problems and nourishing communities of researchers to address them. Without DARPA, that approach is largely absent in the federal IT R&D portfolio.
It was also useful for the Science Committee to get exposure to the concerns the community has had with DARPA over the last several years. Tether’s performance — literally standing before the committee (I staffed a lot of hearings for the House Science Committee under two different chairmen and never once saw a witness rise before the committee and wander around the hearing room while testifying…), delivering remarks 15 minutes over the 5 minute time limit imposed by the committee, and most importantly, being largely unresponsive to the three questions the committee posed to him prior to the hearing — confirmed to the committee Chair and staff that the concerns the community had shared with them had merit. The result is that the committee intends to remain engaged on this issue, which is to the community’s great benefit, I think.
The committee plans to proceed with the issue in the coming months in non-hearing venues. I’ll bring you developments as this moves forward during the summer and fall.