Boldly Exploring the Endless Frontier
During another time of great transition, near the end of World War II, President Roosevelt’s advisor, Vannevar Bush, wrote a seminal essay entitled “Science: The Endless Frontier” in which he sagely observed that “… without scientific progress no amount of achievement in other directions can insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world.” This essay was the progenitor of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and its model of peer-reviewed fundamental, curiosity-driven research, a model now widely emulated around the world.
A year later, Dr. Bush wrote a second essay entitled “As We May Think” in which he described the enduring research paradox of our time:
But there is increased evidence that we are being bogged down today as specialization extends. The investigator is staggered by the finds and conclusions of thousands of other workers—conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear. Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial.
The essay goes on to describe a device he called the Memex (Memory Extender), a mechanized hypertext system for managing copious amounts of information for rapid retrieval. This fascinating juxtaposition of discovery as an endless frontier with a technological vision of information retrieval is one that we are only now realizing—with deep text search, semantic analysis and social tagging tools on the web—after sixty years of research and development. Vision really matters.
Computing research is among the best embodiments of the discovery-driven, endless frontier. As we look ahead, it is clear our discipline faces both challenges and opportunities: challenges to adjust our culture and raise our aspirations, and opportunities to engage and empower 21st century discovery and innovation both within our field and across diverse disciplines.
Discussing the Future
- Are there signs and guideposts for how to move the field forward most effectively – especially without losing the essence of our identity and the strength of our contributions?
- What is the appropriate balance between curiosity-driven research and technological engagement, the essence of what Donald Stokes called “Pasteur’s Quadrant?”
- As stewards of the field, how do we ensure that the right decision processes are in place – for faculty hiring and promotion, graduate student admissions and mentoring, and funding practices and processes – to create the most vibrant and exciting future?
- How do we enhance our community’s willingness to value professional service, which can increase advocacy for our field both within our own institutions and nationally, leading to the resources needed to fuel innovation?
- Go Outside Your Box. The number of opportunities for collaboration continues to grow explosively, both among computing researchers (intradisciplinary collaboration) and among computing and other disciplinary scientists (multidisciplinary collaboration). It is widely recognized that much of the excitement occurs “at the interfaces.” However, we still struggle to hire, promote and support faculty engaged in such collaborations. How do we advise junior faculty on best practices for collaboration? How do we encourage our colleagues in other fields to see us as more than programmers—as experts in transformative “computational thinking?” What kinds of institutional or organizational barriers do collaborative projects and participants face? As a community, are we ready to build the consensus necessary for “Big Science” collaborations? Even within a narrow field of endeavor, there are standard professional challenges (e.g., identifying the important problems, evaluating the work and mentoring newcomers, securing resources). How can we reduce these barriers for collaborators?
- The World Needs Us. We face a huge range of societal problems, and our expertise as computer and information scientists and engineers can help solve many of these. Traditionally, though, applied research has not been as highly valued as basic research; “it’s ‘just’ an application” is a common dismissal of certain types of research. How do we properly assess use – driven research, and distinguish between “mere” applications and serious (but applied) contributions? How do we work with stakeholders who may not be researchers themselves? Are there ways to help people feel comfortable when they move outside familiar styles of research to address problems that may not have the same level of esteem within the academic research community?
- Breaking the Cycle. Anyone who has served on a program committee in any field has bemoaned “creeping incrementalism.” How do we break the cycle of deadline – driven research, which leads to least publishable units, resulting in quantitative rather than qualitative advances? How can we encourage a bolder approach to research projects, one that may involve more risk – taking but may also produce more visionary work, with greater impact? How can we encourage and support basic, long – term research, often necessary to pursue “deep” science questions of our field? What kinds of specific changes must we make to the academic reward structure and to the government funding review process to enable people to fail locally and periodically, without failing globally and permanently? To ensure scholarliness in our field, what is the right mix, culture and approach to journal and conference publications and other venues?
- Serving the Community. If our field is to stay vibrant, we need people to step up and serve the community, in roles ranging from mentors for junior faculty members to program managers at funding agencies and national leaders in the research community. Community leaders represent all of us—to people in other fields, to the public, to the media and to Congress. How can we develop a culture in which professional service is valued, so that the community has a strong voice and is able to obtain the resources needed for the health and growth of our field? How can we best mentor the next generation of computer science leaders?
The workshop did not produce definitive answers to all of these questions, but it did generate a host of good ideas. In every case, the debate was lively, thoughtful and thought provoking. We agreed to produce a set of good practice white papers on selected topics and to summarize the discussion for the community. Look for these on the CRA web site (www.cra.org) in the coming months.
More generally, we invite all of you—the computing research community—to offer your perspectives and ideas on how we maximize the spirit of innovation and vision, both intellectually and practically, that has made our field a magnet for talented individuals and that has transformed commerce, science and society over the past sixty years. Please post your comments to either the CCC blog (www.cccblog.org) or by emailing any of us.
The Future is Bright
Computing faces an embarrassment of riches in the form of research opportunities and possibilities. The “endless frontier” of research within our own discipline is expanding exponentially. Moreover, computing is the quintessential intellectual amplifier for other disciplines, allowing us to manage and extract insights from prodigious amounts of data, build and bring to life sophisticated models of natural and human-synthesized processes, and enable communication and collaboration across time and space.
The future is bright! Let’s seize the opportunities and invent the future—for ourselves as computing researchers and for our colleagues and collaborators in other disciplines.
Ed Lazowska holds the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in the Department of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington, and is Chair of CCC.
Martha Pollack is Dean and Professor, School of Information, University of Michigan, and a CRA board member.
Dan Reed, CRA’s Board Chair, is Microsoft’s Scalable and Multicore Computing Strategist.
Jeannette Wing is Assistant Director of NSF for CISE.