This article is published in the November 2011 issue.

Computing Researchers Take to the Hill as Congress Debates Science Budgets

While congressional appropriators struggled to finish their work on the FY2012 budget— and a congressional supercommittee debated short- and long-term changes to the budget to combat the massive government debt—members of the computing research community continued their efforts in a variety of ways in September to make the case for the federal investment in early-stage computing research.

From across the country, computing researchers descended on Washington as part of a CRA-sponsored Congressional Fall Fly-in, others led a series of congressional briefings tracing the development of the technologies in the iPad, and three former CRA board members joined a government witness testifying on the value of the federal government’s Networking and Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) program before members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. All came with the same message: the federal government’s investment in early-stage computing research has been a critical part of the IT innovation ecosystem that has kept the United States the world leader in technology.

The message was well timed given the unsettled status of federal appropriations for FY2012, which began October 1, 2011. As this goes to press in early October, Congress has yet to pass any of the twelve annual appropriations bills required to fund the operations of government. In late September, Congress passed a stop-gap “continuing resolution” that will keep federal agencies open through November 18, though it is unlikely they will be any closer to a budget deal by then. More likely, Congress will pass yet another continuing resolution, pushing final reconciliation until December or later.

When that final resolution comes, it is unlikely to be very favorable for any federal agency, including federal science agencies like the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, or National Institute of Standards and Technology. Early versions of the FY2012 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations bills, which contain funding for NSF and NIST, indicate Members of Congress are likely to approve, at best, flat funding for science. But, the odds are greater that NSF, NIST and DOE will all see cuts compared to FY2011. Check CRA’s Computing Research Policy Blog for the latest details.

Congressional Fly-in

Seventeen researchers from CRA member institutions in 14 different states flew to DC on September 14 to participate in CRA’s inaugural congressional fly-in—an opportunity for each to meet with members of their state’s congressional delegations, talk about work going on in their institutions, and help make the case for the federal investment in research. Overall, the participants held 45 different meetings with Senators, Representatives, and key staff members—not to lobby for particular earmarks or fund special projects, but to build relationships, offer themselves as resources for their representatives, and deliver a multi-part message about computing:

  • Advances in information technology are transforming all aspects of our lives;
  • Advances in information technology also drive our economy;
  • This history of innovation in computing is impressive, but the future opportunities are even more compelling;
  • It is impossible to imagine a field with greater opportunity to change the world; and
  • The IT R&D ecosystem is crucial to continued innovation in IT, and federal support is at the heart of that ecosystem.

Participants report that the message, in general, played well with Members of Congress. However, in almost all cases, Members cautioned that the budget pressures in DC are about as bad as they have ever been, and that increasing budgets for science agencies, or even preserving budgets when cuts are likely the rule, will be very difficult.

CRA is likely to host another series of congressional visits next fall. If you’d like to participate, let us know by visiting:

iPad Congressional Briefing

On September 21, CRA and the Task Force on American Innovation co-hosted a series of congressional briefings titled “Deconstructing the iPad: How Federally-Supported Research Leads to Game-Changing Innovations.” The idea was to take a device that was familiar to Members of Congress and their staff and tell the story of its development—a story that invariably bears the stamp of federal research support.

Led by Carnegie Mellon University professor and MacArthur Fellow, Luis von Ahn, a panel of industry, government, and academic researchers traced the stories of three key technologies in the iPad—from their roots in early-stage research, through the long development period until the technology was ready for inclusion in the iPad—along the way talking about how federal investment in research enabled key breakthroughs that kept the work moving forward.

Martin Izzard, Vice-President for Research at Texas Instruments, told the story of the “chips” in the iPad—from Jack Kilby’s original integrated circuit to the A5 that powers the iPad, making the case that there was a long distance between those two points and a lot of government and industry investment. Nobel Laureate William Phillips from NIST took the “sensors” case and told the story of the development of the iPad’s GPS, from its origin in magnetic resonance research that led to atomic clocks and MRIs, and pointed out that similar research may unlock quantum computing. And Ben Bederson, a professor at the University of Maryland and former head of the Human-Computer Interface Group, discussed the origins of the iPad’s interface, including the touchscreen and multi-touch gestures—tracing a direct line from federally funded research in the late ‘60s and ‘70s though the technology’s inclusion in the iPad of today. In fact, Bederson may have made the most direct link, showing that technology funded by NSF at the University of Delaware in the late 1990s and early 2000s led to work on capacitive multi-touch techniques. That led to the spinoff of a company called FingerWorks which was bought in 2005 by Apple, who then employed the company’s founders to deploy the technologies in the iPhone and iPad.

The panelists briefed staff of both Senate and House offices, including a large luncheon briefing for House staff that attracted nearly 60 attendees. The message seemed to resonate well with staff, which may lead to hearings on the issue in both the House and Senate later this year or early next.

NITRD Hearing

On the same day these congressional staff were learning all about the technologies in the iPad, three former members of CRA’s Board were called to testify on behalf of the community on the federal government’s Network and Information Technology Research and Development program—the 15-agency, ~$3.6 billion effort that comprises the federal investment in computing research. NITRD National Coordinating Office Director, George Strawn, was joined by Edward Lazowska (former CRA Board Chair and current Chair of CRA’s Computing Community Consortium), Robert Sproull (former CRA Board Member and current CCC Council Member), and Robert Schnabel (former CRA Board Member and current ACM Education Policy Board Chair) to testify before the Subcommittee on Research and Science Education about the current state of the NITRD program.

The committee called the hearing to determine whether the program is delivering on its goals, or whether there are areas in which the federal government’s effort might be better directed. Informational hearings like these—as opposed to those that focus on advancing a specific piece of legislation or a particular aspect of a program—are especially useful for this Congress, as the membership of the Science, Space and Technology Committee is comprised in large part by freshmen members who are, in many cases, unfamiliar with the programs they oversee. Even the Chair of the Subcommittee, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), is serving in his first term, so the need to “educate” the members about the nature of the federal investment and its importance to the overall ecosystem is pretty crucial.

The panelists generally received a favorable reception from the Members in attendance. Chairman Brooks wanted the community to be mindful of the dire budget situation facing the country when they come to Congress asking for more money for science. He made reference to a briefing he’d attended as a member of the Armed Services Committee in which he learned the devastating impact of some of the cuts proposed for the Defense Department—thousands of defense contractors out of work, cuts to the naval fleet, and more. “So how should we prioritize our spending?” he asked. Lazowska, in a moment of relative drama for the hearing, hopped on his iPhone and determined that the projected cost overrun of just one of the Navy’s submarines was equal to four years worth of spending in total at DARPA and NSF for computer science. And yet the payoff from that “rounding error” in the overall budget was extraordinary in its impact.

The committee seems interested in moving another version of a reauthorization bill for the NITRD program, especially now that PCAST has reviewed the program and come up with a series of recommendations. However, it is unlikely anything will come of it this year. As that process moves forward, we’ll have all the details available on the CRA blog.

Computing Researchers Take to the Hill as Congress Debates Science Budgets