This article is published in the November 2009 issue.

Message from the CISE AD Computing and Administration Priorities

There is a new Administration in town and it talks science and it talks research.

“We’ll restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders…”

[President Obama, Inaugural Address, January 20, 2009].

“Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment, and our quality of life than it has ever been before. And if there was ever a day that reminded us of our shared stake in science and research, it’s today.”
[President Obama, speech at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), April 27, 2009].

And it talks evidence-based policy:

…to ensure that federal policies are based on the best and most unbiased scientific information
[President Obama, NAS].

Just what are some of our new Administration’s priorities in science, engineering, and technology research and education? And what implications do these priorities have for the computing community, for CISE, and for NSF?

Administration Priorities

Based on the August 4, 2009 memo to agency heads from Peter Orszag, Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and John Holdren, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), as well as numerous public talks given by OSTP staff, here is a summary of the Administration’s priorities, grouped in terms of scientific interests, and research modes that cut across the scientific interests.

Scientific Interests:

  • Science and technology for economic prosperity: jobs, new industries, innovation
  • Energy, environment, sustainability
  • Biomedical science and information technology for healthcare
  • National security
  • Education, especially in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)

Research Modes:

  • High-risk, high-return, transformative
  • Multi-disciplinary
  • Early investigator
  • “Open innovation” model

What This Means for the Computing Community, CISE and NSF

For two of the scientific interests, economic prosperity and national security, what these priorities mean for us in the computing community is pretty obvious: Innovations in computing—hardware and software—have had an immeasurable impact on our economy, and moreover, an immeasurable impact on society. Many of those innovations came from investments in basic research and many came from our students on our campuses. Consider, for example, Huffman coding, public-key cryptography (Merkle), symbolic mathematics (Martin, Moses), BSD Unix, Mosaic, Google, and Akamai. We need to make sure that key stakeholders understand just how significant our contributions have been, and more importantly, just how much more we as a community have to offer for the good of the nation—we all need to continue hammering this point. National security now means not just securing our borders and protecting our troops, but also making cyberspace more trustworthy; cybersecurity is of tremendous interest to both this Administration and Congress. The case for increased and sustained investment in long-term, basic research in cybersecurity must continue to be made loudly and clearly, for as our cyber adversaries get more sophisticated, so must we.

For the other three scientific interests, engagement by the computing community is less obvious or less direct, but instrumental.

For energy, environment, and sustainability, it is not just reducing the 2 percent of our direct carbon footprint, but helping sectors in the other 98 percent reduce theirs. When we talk about the smart grid, smart homes, smart buildings, smart cars, smart transportation systems, and others, what makes them “smart?” Computing! Our sensors, our software, our devices, our networks. When earth scientists want to model the climate at regional and decadal scales, they require new computational models, algorithms, methods, and software to do the desired simulation, prediction, analyses, and visualization. More fundamentally, computing has a tradition of measuring the complexity of algorithms and performance of systems in terms of time and space; suppose we were to consider energy as a third basic resource to measure? How would that change the design and choice of algorithms we use and the architecture of the systems we build?

The computing community also has a lot to offer as we move toward patient-centered healthcare: new fundamental biological discoveries using computational methods and tools, intelligent decision-making, sophisticated data analysis, participatory sensing, robotic surgery, new interactive wall-sized touch display technologies for telemedicine, and more. It is not about digitizing current healthcare processes, but transforming the very nature of healthcare delivery and patient monitoring.

For education, there is a new movement afoot within our community to get the “C” in STEM. Toward this goal, the May 20, 2009 Hill event “Bringing Innovative Computing Curriculum Across the Digital Divide,” sponsored by ACM, CRA, CSTA, IEEE-USA, Microsoft, NCWIT, and SWE, discussed the state of computer science education at the K-12 level and a new computing curriculum and teacher preparation course (see: link) funded by Microsoft, NSF/CISE, and UCLA.

As for the research modes, first and foremost, NSF views all the research we fund as potentially transformative. Often the breakthrough is a result of steadily following a research agenda with a long-term vision; sometimes it is the serendipitous side product of the line of research being pursued. And yes, sometimes the research idea fails. That is, after all, the nature of research.

Second, NSF welcomes proposals for high-risk, high-return research and for multi-disciplinary projects. We also have specific programs to emphasize our support for high-risk, high-return research—for example, CISE’s Expeditions program, and/or for multi-disciplinary research, such as NSF’s Cyber-enabled Discovery and Innovation. We also encourage our program directors to use EAGERs for ambitious, but less-tested-out ideas. NSF even started experimenting with “sandpits,” a process successfully launched in the UK that is used in merit review to nurture emerging interdisciplinary fields.

As indicated in the FY10 Budget Request, NSF plans to increase its support for young investigators, both the number of graduate research fellowships (GRFs) and the number of CAREER awards. To the computing community: Please take advantage of these opportunities by encouraging all eligible students to apply for GRFs and by mentoring junior faculty to write compelling CAREER proposals.

Finally, NSF continues to encourage the academic community to work with the private sector, and vice versa. Many of the results of CISE-sponsored research translate into start-ups and thus fuel the innovation engine. CISE likes to brag about those wins because they help make our case for how basic research leads to economic prosperity. And so we’ve come full circle.

Serve the Nation

“We also need to engage the scientific community directly in the work of public policy.”
[President Obama, NAS].

Now, if ever, is the right time to be in DC. Policy-makers are thirsting to hear from the computing research community, be it on cybersecurity, broadband, spectrum management, cyberlearning, and who knows what else in the future. The political climate is right for science, engineering, and technology. Serve the computing community, serve the nation!

Jeannette M. Wing is Assistant Director of NSF for CISE.

Message from the CISE AD Computing and Administration Priorities