This article is published in the November 2006 issue.

A Clarion Call within the Cacophony

Musings from the Chair

Like many of you, I serve on a multiplicity of U.S. and international panels that offer advice and suggestions on science policy and computing. Indeed, there are times when it feels as if we are a proximate cause of deforestation, due to the number of voluminous reports we produce. The good ones are even read and have influence— sometimes!

Recently, during the question-and-answer period for one of these panels, a U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) examiner noted that rarely do people come to Washington to plead, “I’m dumb, and I have too much federal money. Can you help me?” The comment generated a healthy laugh and knowing nods, but the OMB examiner was making a serious point.

There are far more smart people with good ideas beseeching government, whether local, state or federal, for help than there are available resources. Thus has it ever been, and evermore shall it be. What, then, allows certain groups to be heard, to advance their cause, and to secure support while others struggle in vain?

There are many cynical answers to this rhetorical question, and some may even be correct. However, I believe the answer largely lies in the power and coherence of the message and the unanimity with which the constituent community delivers it. Congressional staffers have repeatedly said that any scientific community that fails to speak consistently with a single voice and a compelling message of national importance is unlikely to realize its full agenda.

Even when aided by sympathetic proponents, there are so many competing good ideas that only those with a clear, powerful message and priorities garner attention and support. This is especially true in an era of rising budget pressures and competition from well-organized special interest groups.

What does this mean for us, the computing research community? As the physicist Ernest Rutherford once remarked, “We have no money. Therefore, we must think.” Well, we do have money, just not as much as we wish we did! And, we are thinking—in between committee meetings and report writing—but we can do more. That’s where the nascent Computing Community Consortium (CCC) comes in.

The National Science Foundation has awarded $6M over three years to CRA to launch and operate the CCC, which is chartered with creating compelling, audacious research visions and the mechanisms needed to realize these visions, regardless of their scope and scale. Some will be smaller, entrepreneurial efforts; others may require large teams and international collaborations.

As a broad community activity with engaged participation across all of CRA’s membership, the CCC can help us shape the future of computing by defining the research questions and shaping the agendas that make us proud to be computing researchers—the ones that will shape our intellectual future, attract the best and brightest minds of a new generation, and offer compelling stories for a wide range of funded research. The lead article in this issue of CRN outlines these objectives in greater detail, along with a web site at

In the spirit of Rutherford, I encourage you to think audaciously about the future, about what could be, about how we can make an even bigger societal difference. What are the deep questions, the messages that galvanize response and enthusiasm, both from our community and from the larger population? This is the clarion call, the clear voice that can rise above the cacophony of competing agendas to say, “Join us, be a part of something truly great because we are inventing the future—one idea at a time.”

Dan Reed, 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). Contact him at reed [at]

A Clarion Call within the Cacophony