This article is published in the September 2007 issue.

Computing: All Our Constants Are Variables

Musings from the Chair

We humans are not particularly good predictors of change, particularly exponential change. We tend to extrapolate tomorrow from today—geometrically, two points do define a straight line, after all. In the near term, that is a safe and reasonable expedient. However, we, of all disciplines, know that the pace of change is accelerating, with ever greater global connections and greater social, economic and scientific interdependence. In turn, this has profound implications for computing education, research, employment and societal engagement.

I find it exciting that the complexity of today’s problems is catalyzing a return to multidisciplinary inquiry, after more than a century of increasing specialization. Natural philosophy, the precursor of science, began as the study of nature in all its aspects. Physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology and mathematics: they were once all one, aspects of a common study, all part of the quest for coherent understanding.

We tend to forget that science is, after all, simply an Anglicization of scientia, the Latin word for knowledge. By analogy, computing science and engineering is about knowledge and its applications, driven by information technology in all its disparate forms, making it timely to reassess the state of computing research.

Over the past year, I’ve been privileged to co-chair a review of the U.S. Networking and IT Research and Development (NITRD) activities. NITRD is the interagency program that funds almost all computing research in the United States, including that at NSF, DoD and DOE. This review, conducted by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), is the first program-wide assessment since the seminal 1999 report, Information Technology Research: Investing in Our Future. That report led to a dramatic increase in research funding for information technology, and emphasized the critical importance of IT to the nation’s economic and research competitiveness and its national security.

As I write this, the PCAST assessment of NITRD is in press, and it may well be available on the National Coordination Office’s web site by the time you read this column. Succinctly, the report, Leadership Under Challenge: Information Technology R&D in a Competitive World, notes the enormous contributions of computing research to our society and makes several observations about opportunities and needs.

  1. The number of people completing NIT education programs and the usefulness of that education fall short of current and projected needs. We must modify curricula to be more relevant to current needs and attract more students, both by offering more graduate fellowships and easing visa processes for international students who receive degrees from accredited U.S. graduate programs.
  2. The Federal NIT R&D portfolio is currently imbalanced in favor of low-risk projects; too many are small-scale and short-term efforts. The number of large-scale, multidisciplinary activities with long time horizons is limited and visionary projects are few. This was also a key observation of the 1999 PITAC report, which proposed transformative Expeditions to the 21st Century.
  3. As new funding becomes available, four topics should receive disproportionately larger increases because they address issues for which progress will have both the greatest effect on important applications and the highest leverage in advancing capabilities. These are networked IT systems connected with the physical world, software, digital data and networking. However, high-end computing, cybersecurity, human-computer interaction and NIT and the social sciences must remain priorities.
  4. While the NITRD Program has effectively balanced agency needs with national needs and priorities, the current nature and scale of NITRD program coordination processes are inadequate to meet anticipated needs and to maintain leadership in an era of global NIT competitiveness. The NITRD program should develop a strategic interagency plan and roadmaps.

All of these observations and recommendations complement the activities of the nascent Computing Community Consortium (CCC), which is working to empower community research visions and the multiplicity of competitiveness initiatives in the U.S. Congress, which promise to greatly increase funding for computing research and NSF and DOE.

Computing has had a transformative effect on our lives, and the best is yet to be. In a world where some of our capabilities can and do change rapidly, being nimble and adaptive is key to exploiting emerging opportunities. This is an exciting time, filled with opportunity—all our constants are variables. In a changing world, success accrues to those who surf the wave of change. Grab your boards, the surf’s up!

Dan Reed, CRA’s Board Chair, is the Chancellor’s Eminent Professor and Senior Advisor for Strategy and Innovation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He also directs the interdisciplinary Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI). Contact him at reed[at]

Computing: All Our Constants Are Variables