Today the House voted to pass a revised version of the America COMPETES Act, a bill that would reauthorize several key science agencies and STEM Education programs, completing an unlikely resurrection of a bill most in the science advocacy community (including this correspondent) figured was dead in this session.

COMPETES has been through quite a legislative rollercoaster on its trip through Congress and has emerged at the end significantly leaner. The version the House granted final approval of today has been trimmed significantly since its original passage — the Senate having shed the bill of a number of controversial tech-transfer and tech-innovation programs, cut the authorization amounts for NSF, NIST and DOE Office of Science, and removed the Networking and Information Technology R&D (NITRD) Program reauthorization and the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) from the package. The resulting “clean” package was far more palatable to Senate Republicans who had opposed the House version of the bill, and the Senate was able to find time on its calendar late on Sunday  to pass the bill by unanimous consent.

Unfortunately, the Senate managed to find time on its calendar because the Democratic leadership wasn’t able to strike a deal on passage of a Omnibus Appropriations bill that would have contained — along with funding for all the operations of government — real funding increases for NSF and NIST in FY 11. Instead, the Senate leadership pulled the omnibus legislation and has passed a so-called “Continuing Resolution” (CR) that would keep the government running at the FY 10 budget levels through March 4, 2011. The House is expected to agree to the March 4th CR this evening.

But despite actual appropriations being left up in the air for science agencies, it is still  symbolic that both chambers decided to use precious closing-session floor time to debate and ultimately authorize increases for science funding. Advocates for science can now at least point to these authorized levels as a target for appropriators as the new Congress convenes in January.

And what did legislators ultimately approve? The Alliance for Science and Technology Research in America (ASTRA) has put together a handy comparison chart (pdf) showing the various authorization levels approved along COMPETES bumpy path. In short, here’s where NSF and NIST finished up:

  • National Science Foundation: Authorized for three years with a total increase of nearly 20 percent over the three years, compared to the agency’s FY 10 budget. Under the plan, NSF would grow by 7.2 percent in FY 11.
  • National Institute of Standards and Technology: Authorized for three years with a total increase of 21.4 percent over FY 10. Under the plan NIST would grow 7.3 percent in FY 11.
  • DOE Office of Science: Authorizes a 14 percent increase in DOE’s R&D programs over three years. Includes $900 million in authorization for DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E) over three years.

The bill passed by a vote of 228 to 130, on an essentially party-line vote. Sixteen Republicans did cross the aisle to vote for the measure, though.

We’ll have more on what’s actually in the revised COMPETES Act in a future post. For now, the bill’s passage is about the only cause for celebration we’re likely to get as this Congress comes to a close. And given the changing tenor in Washington, it may be the only thing we celebrate for much of the next one, too…

Update: (12/22/2010) — The White House has weighed in. A snippet:

Passage of the Act comes at a crucial time in our Nation’s economic and technological trajectory—a time that President Obama characterized last month as a “Sputnik moment.” Just as Americans in 1957 quickly grasped the significance of the Soviet Union’s historic launch of the world’s first artificial satellite—responding aggressively with new investments in research and development (R&D) and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education—Americans today are recognizing that we are once again on the brink of a new world. The decisions we make today about how we invest in R&D, education, innovation, and competitiveness will profoundly influence our Nation’s economic vitality, global stature, and national security tomorrow.

Here’s the whole post.

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The Nation’s CTO and CIO joined other key White House advisors at a briefing today to announce the release of the President’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology (PCAST) report on the state of federal IT research and development and offered a strong words of support for the role of information technology in driving the economy, enabling the sciences and accelerating the pace of discovery, and addressing national priorities.

The final PCAST report, “Designing a Digital Future,” appears essentially unchanged from the report presented to the committee last month and which we’ve detailed previously. The committee reviewed $4 billion, 14-agency Networking and Information Technology and Research and Development (NITRD) program and found that while it handles coordination of the agency programs “very successfully,” it’s not particularly effective at providing vision or strategic leadership for the federal effort. Among its recommendations, PCAST calls for the creation of a new standing committee, housed in some unspecified place in the Administrative branch and comprised of experts in IT from academia and industry, to help guide NITRD and provide strategic advice for the program. PCAST also found that current budget reporting mechanisms in use by NITRD don’t accurately detail the federal investment in IT R&D. As we noted in that previous post, much of what gets reported by participating NITRD agencies as “IT R&D” is actually “IT that’s used in R&D in other fields,” a fact which leads to a substantial overstatement of the true federal investment in IT research. A review of NIH’s investment, for example, found that of the over $1 billion the NIH reported to NITRD as IT R&D for FY09, only 2 to 11 percent of it could actually be described as true IT research. The rest was more accurately described as IT infrastructure used to support research in other fields.

PCAST’s report also recommends significant new investments in research areas that will advance national priorities — like health, energy, transportation and education — as well as research aimed at advancing specific research frontiers in IT. Our colleague Erwin Gianchandani has a detailed look at some of the research areas recommended by PCAST over at the CCC blog.

One other interesting recommendation – in light of the recent news of a Chinese supercomputer heading the list of the world’s fastest – is the panel’s call for the U.S. to abandon the competition to stay atop the Top500 rankings based on FLOPS (floating point operations per second). Calling it “an arms race we don’t really find beneficial,” PCAST member David Shaw derided FLOPS as a metric for high-performance computing. Shaw and PCAST NITRD Working Group Co-Chair Ed Lazowska (who also Chairs CRA’s Computing Community Consortium) both noted the finishing at the top of the Top500 is exceptionally expensive and doesn’t necessarily guarantee you’ll build a machine that’s particularly useful. Far more valuable a priority, Shaw noted, is to invest in research that could allow for a leap-frog of current high-performance computing technology. “We need to make sure we don’t allow procurement to crowd out research funding,” he said.

Administration Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra ran the lively briefing, calling on fellow advisors Vivek Kundra, the administration’s Chief Information Officer; Phil Weiser, Senior Advisor for Technology and Innovation to the National Economic Council Director; and Tom Kalil, Deputy Director for Policy of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, to testify to the impact of IT on government, on the U.S. economy, and on making progress on national priorities like energy, transportation, health and national security.

Kalil summed up the Administration’s position on why IT R&D is so important with four succinct points:

  • The IT revolution is far from over — there are many core challenges in computing still to addressed that have the potential to revolutionize further our economy, our standard of living, our national defense;
  • Information and communication technologies (ICT) are accelerating the pace of discovery in more and more disciplines; in fact, some disciplines like astronomy are becoming information-based fields;
  • ICT has had and continues to have a huge impact on our economy – a point discussant Robert Atkinson of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation amplified later in the briefing, noting that ITIF research showed that IT’s contribution to the U.S. economy is worth $2 trillion annually, and that IT jobs between 1999-2008 grew 4 times faster than non-IT jobs;
  • And, ICT has a role in every one of our national priorities, including health, education, energy, transportation, open government.

Kalil also noted the reasons why it’s important the federal government continues to invest substantially in IT research. The payoff from the federal investment in IT research historically has been dramatic – every billion-dollar subsector of the IT economy bears the stamp of federal support for research. Investment in basic research isn’t attractive to industry for a host of different reasons, not the least of which being that because of the nature of fundamental research, it’s nearly impossible for firms to capture all the benefit from their research investment. He also pointed out that many areas of IT research are critical to the missions of government agencies. And he noted that an investments in university research not only often produce good ideas, but just as importantly, they produce people – the next generation of scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs who will power our future.

In all, the briefing was a great showcase for the esteem in which the Administration holds IT research and its contributions to the nation. As federal budgets tighten, its crucial that U.S. policymakers understand that there are areas in which the U.S. must be allowed to maintain its science leadership, and it appears that the message that IT is one of those areas has gotten through to PCAST and to the White House.

The briefing is available as a webcast and well worth watching. The two “independent” discussants on the panel – Atkinson and Tom Leighton, founder of Akamai Technologies – are particularly worth a look (towards the last third of the broadcast).

In the coming year, we’ll keep an eye on how the recommendations of the committee fare and have all the details here.

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Steven Aftergood, of the always excellent Secrecy News blog, notes the release of a new report by the JASON panel, an influential, independent advisory committee for the Department of Defense that focuses on issues in science and technology, on the “Science of Cyber Security.” Specifically, DOD asked the panel to examine the theory and practice of cyber security, and “evaluate whether there are underlying fundamental principals that would make it possible to adopt a more scientific approach.”

The committee has released their report on the issue (the Federation of American Scientists managed to obtain a copy (pdf)), have concluded that there is a science of cyber security, but it “seems underdeveloped in reporting experimental results, and consequently in the ability to use them.” The primary recommendation of the committee is to have the DOD sponsor “multiple cyber-security science based centers and projects within universities and other research centers.” The programs should have “a long time horizon and periodic reviews of accomplishments.”

Centers, the panel believes, have several attractive features:

  • they give the sponsors access to the best ideas and people;
  • they give the sponsor a chance to bias the work towards their versions of common problems;
  • there is an opportunity for these centers and programs to leverage a unique collection of resources internal to the DOD, including defensive data and experience from running internal networks.

The centers would be different than DARPAs projects in that the centers “would be expected to make steady progress on a broad set of topics, rather than limit themselves to revolutionary ideas or to try to solve the latest cyber-security crisis.”

Centers would also act as connecting points for the software industry, which would accelerate the translation of new ideas into useful tools for developers. The panel believes that this would correct a long-standing deficiency wherein some very sophisticated approaches to assessing and reasoning about the security of current systems are not available in the form of developer tools, perhaps because there’s insufficient market for the private development of the tools.

A number of representatives from academia, industry and government briefed JASON on the issues, including CRA’s Government Affairs Chair Fred Schneider.

JASON reports often form the basis of action within DOD on S&T matters, and there’s no reason to suggest that the recommendations in this report won’t get consideration. Whether the investment in centers actually happens is, of course, also dependent on the DOD’s budget situation, which is in a bit of flux at the moment until Congress hammers out a final agreement on an FY 11 budget and the Administration releases its plan for FY 12. But it wouldn’t be surprising to see an effort to incorporate the reports recommendations in future DOD budgets.

In any case, the report is well-written and well worth a read.

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