This article is published in the November 2006 issue.

NSF Selects CRA to Create Computing Community Consortium:

Effort Will Envision Major Research Opportunities

The National Science Foundation announced on September 18 an agreement with the Computing Research Association (CRA) to establish a consortium of computing experts that will provide scientific leadership and vision on issues related to computing research and future large-scale computing research projects.

Under the three-year, $6 million agreement, CRA will create the Computing Community Consortium (CCC) to identify major research opportunities and establish “grand challenges” for the field. The CCC will create venues for community participation for developing visions and creating new research activities.

One of the first tasks of the CCC will be to assume the role of community proxy organization for the NSF’s Global Environment for Networking Innovations (GENI) Project, providing broad scientific oversight to its potential construction and operation. In addition, the CCC will provide scientific oversight for future NSF large-scale computing research initiatives.

Why Do We Need a Computing Community Consortium?

What questions shape our intellectual future? What attracts the best and brightest minds of a new generation? For biologists, it is a deep understanding of life and its processes. For physicists, it is deducing the structure of the universe and a grand unified theory of the fundamental forces. These are profound questions, older than history, with some potential answers now within our grasp. Moreover, this knowledge has and is enabling diverse advances, from cancer treatment to engineering design.

As computing researchers, we work in that most malleable of media—information and its processes. Our ideas continue to enable and transform all of science, reshape the world’s economy and change our culture. What are the next big computing ideas, the ones that will define the future of computing, galvanize the very best students, and catalyze research investment and public support?

The purpose of the Computing Community Consortium (hereafter CCC) is to create compelling research visions and the mechanisms needed to realize these visions. These compelling visions can take many forms. History has amply demonstrated the importance of entrepreneurial, grassroots efforts as creative engines in computing research. It has also demonstrated the value of large teams, large facilities, and substantial funding. Many see an increasing need for shared research facilities and teams in our field for us to tackle certain “grand challenge” problems.

With this background:

The challenge for the Computing Community Consortium (CCC) is to catalyze the computing research community to debate longer range, more audacious research challenges; to build consensus around research visions; to articulate those research visions; to evolve the most promising visions toward clearly defined initiatives; and to work with funding organizations to move the challenges and visions toward funding initiatives. The CCC will do this without harming the research environment that has created the computing world of today.

Who Will Be Involved?

By design and organization, the CCC will be broadly inclusive of the computing research community. We anticipate diverse participation from the community in a multiplicity of visioning activities. Any computing researcher who wishes to be involved will be encouraged to be involved.

Facilitating the CCC’s activities will be a CCC Council (hereafter Council), a group with the stature, diversity, and longevity needed for the CCC to be effective. The Council’s role is to stimulate and facilitate visioning activities. The Council is responsible not for doing the visioning, but for putting processes into place that stimulate and facilitate visioning by the computing research community. These processes will include conferences, workshops, task forces, white papers, and a variety of other mechanisms, all of which will be widely advertised and open to the broadest possible spectrum of the computing research community.

Guided by the Council, the CCC will foster evolution of the most promising visions toward major funding initiatives. Some funding initiatives will require significant instrumentation; others will not. The Council will work closely with appropriate members of NSF and other funding agencies to advance the interests of the community.

How Will the CCC Operate?

The visioning process begins with a community activity to identify fundamental questions in computing. These questions are not program or facility specific, but may ultimately encompass multiple programs or facilities. The CCC will communicate the output of this activity to the national community. This list of fundamental questions will provide the framework and rationale for large initiatives.

In support of the development of a list of fundamental questions, the Council will charter visioning activities, which will identify potential major opportunities, set priorities or establish grand scientific or engineering challenges for the field. These visioning activities will be based on a topical interest area either proposed (formally or informally) by members of the computing research community or formulated by Council members. Such proposals may be community generated or may result from workshops and study groups organized by the Council.

As visioning activities gather momentum, the Council will establish Visioning Task Forces, whose members will be recruited from the proposers, based on interest and expertise, with oversight by the Council. These task forces will conduct workshops and meetings, ideally in conjunction with related conferences. Some task force activities may be conducted in foreign venues to ensure international participation.

Task force members will generate a public report that describes the prospects for the proposed activity and estimates the resources required. We expect these reports, either individually or in collected editions published by the CRA, to constitute authoritative statements of the scope and benefits for major computing research initiatives. The reports will also form a basis for consensus building, establishing an agenda for future initiatives and community thinking around audacious research goals.

One possible outcome of Visioning Task Forces will be the identification of ideas for major instrumentation or research initiatives that enjoy widespread community support and that address deep challenges and problems in computing. The Council, in such cases, will place the initiative in the context of the computing community’s key research questions, and it will seek agreement from appropriate funding agencies that the idea is worthy of further exploration. Based on such agreement, the Council will work with the Task Force to form an Initial Planning Group.

The charter of the Initial Planning Group will be to formulate a plan that outlines major strategic thrusts, identifies possible sources and types of funding, and identifies the portion of the scientific community that should participate. The CCC will assist the Initial Planning Group in presenting their findings to appropriate funding agencies and help them establish committed prospects for funding.

Although many of these thrusts will primarily require interest and initiation through new coordinated funding programs, others will require the development of large-scale instrumentation. The latter are more suitable for programs such as the NSF Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) program. For future research initiatives requiring the construction of large-scale shared resources through the MREFC process, the CCC, through the Initial Planning Group, will play a key role in the preliminary stages.

Upon successful completion of this MREFC conceptual design phase, the CCC will work with NSF to establish a t to continue the preliminary design phase. As this process proceeds, the NSF will become more directly involved in oversight, though the CCC will continue to represent the community in evaluating whether the instrument being planned and built by the Project Office is meeting the research needs it was created to serve.

Tailored, small groups constituted by CCC will seek to reduce the time needed not only to formulate a consensus around a community research vision, but also to aid the funding agencies in exploring alternative initiative formulations that reduce the time between vision setting and program initiation. By identifying and sustaining a consensus suite of the computing research community’s fundamental research questions, the CCC will provide a ready source of motivation for innovative research programs and a broadly based rationale for their funding.

The figure below shows both the intended organization and the operation of the CCC:

How Will Research Thrusts Be Advanced?

Computing has a very diverse range of research thrusts, which the CCC will reflect in the consensus suite of fundamental research questions. At any time, many research objectives are being actively pursued. One CCC objective is to catalyze the formulation of new research thrusts—more rapidly than they have formed in the past. Some of these thrusts will grow and prosper; others will not gain a community consensus or will not appeal to funding sources and will disappear.

Because we see value in multiplicity, the CCC routinely will pursue multiple thrusts simultaneously. The strength of community interest will communicate the priority of a candidate thrust to the funding agencies. In addition to serving in this matchmaking role, the CCC will serve in a high-level oversight role ensuring that the scientific mission of the program is serving the broad computing community.

What Will the Computing Community Consortium Accomplish?

The opportunity for the CCC is dramatic—we are at a time when the computing research community is ready to assume more responsibility for its own success through the creation of funding programs and instrumentation to attract and empower the next generation of researchers. Moreover, it is clear that the impact of computing on the nation’s economy and our citizens’ lives will continue to grow dramatically. Together we can:

1. Bring the computing research community together to discuss, prioritize and envision our future research needs and thrusts.
2. Communicate these challenges, needs and thrusts to the broader national community.
3. Create within the computing research community more audacious thinking.
4. See the ideas developed in (1) and (3) turn into funded research programs and/or instruments.
5. Increase the excitement within computing research, and use that excitement to attract students of both genders and all ethnic groups into computing research careers.


Elements of this article were developed and co-authored by other members of the proposal development team, including Randal E. Bryant, Susan L. Graham, Anita Jones, Richard Karp, Ken Kennedy, Edward D. Lazowska, Peter Lee, Wim Sweldens, and Jeffrey S. Vitter.

For more information, see:

NSF Selects CRA to Create Computing Community Consortium: