It was a busy day on Capitol Hill yesterday for members of the computing research community as they worked to make the case to Congress of the importance of the federal investment in research from a couple of different angles. From one direction, a panel of current and former CRA board members joined the head of the National Coordinating Office for IT R&D (George Strawn) at a hearing of the Research and Science Education subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee to comment on the adequacy of the federal effort in IT research. CRA’s Computing Community Consortium Chair (and University of Washington CS professor) Edward Lazowska, current CCC council member and former Oracle Labs head Bob Sproull, and former CRA board member and current head of ACM’s Education Policy Committee Bobby Schnabel all carried the message to the subcommittee that the federal investment is critical to the overall IT ecosystem, and that the payoff from that investment has been extraordinary.

From another direction, computing research community members Luis von Ahn (from Carnegie Mellon) and Ben Bederson (from UMD) joined Physics Nobelist William Phillips and Texas Instruments Vice President of R&D Martin Izzard at a series of briefings for Members of Congress and their staffs intended to make the case for the federal investment in early-stage scientific research by telling the story of the federal role in some of the key technologies of the iPad. Called “Deconstructing the iPad: How Federally-Supported Research Leads to Game-Changing Innovation” the well-attended briefings sought to take an object familiar to most Members and staffers and show that it didn’t spring wholly from the minds of engineers at Apple, but that the key technologies that enable it all bear the clear stamp of federal support.

Both events were received very well and probably helped the case for computing generate a little more traction in Congress. We’ll break down the iPad event in the next post (though Pat Thibodeau has a bit of coverage of the event in Computerworld today). In this one, we’ll summarize yesterday’s hearing.

Lazowska, Sproull and Schnabel were all invited to testify to help the committee members, who have jurisdiction over the federal Networking and Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) program — the ~$3.6 billion, 15 agency effort that comprises the federal investment in IT research — understand whether the program is delivering on its goals, or whether there are areas in which the federal government’s effort might better be directed. These sort of informational hearings — as opposed to a hearing focused on advancing a specific piece of legislation or a particular aspect of a program — are especially useful this Congress, as the membership of the Science, Space and Technology Committee is comprised in large part by freshmen members who are largely unfamiliar with the programs they oversee. Even the Chair of the Subcommittee, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), is serving in his first term — so the need for “educating” the members about the nature of the federal investment and its importance to the overall ecosystem is pretty crucial.

Lazowska began by noting the incredible pervasiveness of computing in our lives and it’s role in driving our economy, competitiveness, and in creating new industries and literally millions of new jobs. “Federal support is a key part of the vibrant ecosystem that drives IT innovation,” he said. “While the vast majority of industry R&D is focused on the engineering of the next release of products, it’s the role of Federally funded research to take the long view, creating the ideas that can later be turned into game-changers like the Internet, the Web browser and GPS.”

As the “industry” witness on the panel, Sproull amplified this point by noting that research funded by industry alone will not sustain the IT economy. “The explosive growth and dramatic advances in [the IT] sector over the last 50 years have depended on long-term research, mostly performed in academia and funded by the U.S. government. Industry works closely with academic researchers to harness their finding and expertise.”

Sproull also took a couple of minutes to detail for the subcommittee members the National Research Council’s “Tire Tracks” chart, which tries to illustrate some of the complex interactions between federally supported researchers and efforts in the private sector, making the point that federally supported research (usually in universities) doesn’t supplant industry research, there’s often a long lead time between the initial investments in fundamental research and the payoff in terms of a commercial product (though those products often turn into billion-dollar sectors of the economy), and that research often pays off in unexpected ways (another reason investments there aren’t attractive to industry).

Schnabel focused most of his comments on the computing workforce and education issues, in particular the need for the NITRD program to focus more attention on computer science education issues, especially K-12.

The panelists generally received a favorable reception from the Members in attendance. Chairman Brooks wanted the community to be mindful of the dire budget situation facing the country when they come to Congress asking for more money for Science. He made reference to a briefing he’d attended as a member of the Armed Services Committee in which he learned the devastating impact of some of the cuts proposed for the Defense Department — 1000s of defense contractors out of work, cuts to the naval fleet, etc. So, how ought we prioritize our spending?, he asked. Lazowska, in a moment of relative drama for the hearing, hopped on his iPhone and determined that the projected cost overrun of just one of the Navy’s submarines was equal to four years worth of spending in total at DARPA and NSF for computer science. And yet the payoff from that “rounding error” in the overall budget was extraordinary in its  impact.

Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) was very supportive of the overall case, but raised concerns about the workforce issues in computing. Specifically, he raised concerns about whether we were training students now for jobs that might not exist in the future — either because the technology moves so fast or because companies were moving those jobs offshore. The panelists didn’t get much time to answer the questions (a vote was pending on the House floor), but brought up the generally optimistic projections for job growth in the sector — Lazowska testified that “the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that 60% of all new jobs in all fields of science and engineering in the current decade will be jobs for computer specialists – more than all of the physical sciences, all of the life sciences, all of the social sciences, and all other fields of engineering combined” — and Schnabel shared that demand for graduates, including those at his own institution, was exceptionally strong.

The committee seems interested in moving another version of a reauthorization bill for the NITRD program, especially now that PCAST has reviewed the program and come up with a series of recommendations. However, its unlikely anything will come of it this year. Lipinski suggested that he’d still like to push for something before the end of this Congress next year. As that process moves forward, we’ll have all the details.

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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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