This article is published in the May 2006 issue.

Research: On Being the Right Size

Musings from the Chair

In 1928, the British geneticist J.B.S. Haldane wrote a now famous essay entitled On Being the Right Size, where he noted, “The most obvious differences between different animals are differences of size … it is easy to show that a hare could not be as large as a hippopotamus, or a whale as small as a herring. For every type of animal, there is a most convenient size, and a large change in size inevitably carries with it a change of form.” It was a cogent argument about surface area to volume ratios, structures, respiration and energy.

Similar arguments can be made for right-sizing research project resources to challenges and opportunities. The continuum of research opportunities in computing is deep and broad, yet we have often tended to focus on those best attacked by small teams and local infrastructure. Many other disciplines, most notably physics, regularly pursue projects much larger than those common in computing. Such projects often require both substantial intellectual resources (faculty, staff and students) and major infrastructure (e.g., accelerators, telescopes and other instruments).

They address fundamental, large-scale problems—sometimes nothing less than the very nature of the universe—and they require multi-institutional teams willing to take risks. I believe we can learn from our peers in the physical sciences: that to address our most fundamental issues and have broad, transforming impact we must “right-size” our research investment portfolio. This means balancing risk, from projects with smaller, though highly likely returns, to those that could have a transformative effect, but involve higher risk.

In an accompanying column in this issue, Peter Freeman, NSF’s Assistant Director for the Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate, discusses the proposed Global Environment for Network Innovations (GENI) initiative, which would seek up to $300M in appropriations for NSF’s Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) budget. If this project is funded, and many steps remain along the funding path, it would tap a set of NSF resources that have heretofore not been accessible to computing, with broad research benefits beyond networking. Equally importantly, the overarching Computing Community Consortium (CCC) would provide a framework to define other computing funding priorities and projects.

We all know the transformative effect computing has had on society, the economy, science and engineering, and the arts and humanities. This realization is now shaping science policy in industry, academia and government. Two recent examples illustrate both our reach and the opportunities. CRA recently organized a session on computing’s impact on science at the recent American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in St. Louis, and the February 23, 2006 issue of Nature discusses the impact of computing on scientific discovery.

In this spirit, I would like to share some new developments regarding the political ecosystem surrounding information technology. I just returned from the first meeting of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) since PCAST’s mission was expanded to include an examination of IT. As a new member, I am participating in the IT subcommittee, whose goal is to produce an assessment of research investments in computing. I welcome any ideas and insights you might have about this topic, as the committee deliberates.

Finally, in my previous column, I mentioned the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) which, if funded, would double federal investment in basic research in the physical sciences, which includes information technology. The ACI was also a major discussion topic at the PCAST meeting. Multiple bills have been introduced in Congress, and the ACI continues to evolve. By the time you read this, all of us will have a much clearer indication of likely outcomes; watch the CRA blog ( for details.
Dan Reed (Dan_Reed [at], CRA’s Board Chair, is the Chancellor’s Eminent Professor and Vice-Chancellor for Information Technology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He also directs the interdisciplinary Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI).

Research: On Being the Right Size