Computing Research Policy Blog

The Computing Research Association (CRA) has been involved in shaping public policy of relevance to computing research for more than two decades. More recently the CRA Government Affairs program has enhanced its efforts to help the members of the computing research community contribute to the public debate knowledgeably and effectively.

President Intends to Nominate Computing Researcher Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan as Next Director of National Science Foundation


Dr. Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan

On an otherwise uneventful day, President Donald Trump yesterday announced his intention to nominate Dr. Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan as the next Director of the National Science Foundation, succeeding Dr. France Córdova, whose six-year term ends next year. Panchanathan is a computing researcher and the Executive Vice President of Arizona State University’s Knowledge Enterprise, Chief Research and Innovation officer, Director of the Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing (CUbiC), and Foundation Chair in Computing and Informatics. Panchanathan is also a member of the National Science Board, and a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, AAAS, Canadian Academy of Engineering, IEEE, and the Society of Optical Engineering.

“Panch” is well-known and well-respected in the computing research community. If confirmed by the Senate, Panchanathan would join Erich Bloch as the only Directors in the Foundation’s history from the the computing community. Panchanathan will join Princeton’s Margaret Martonosi, recently announced as the new head of NSF’s Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate effective February 1, 2020, leaving the computing research community well-represented in an agency so important to the field — NSF supports approximately 85 percent of all fundamental computing research performed at U.S. universities, nearly $1.4 billion annually.

The current NSF Director and head of the National Science Board both released statements after the President’s announcement:

Dr. Córdova issued the following statement:

“For five years, Dr. Sethuraman Panchanathan has been a bold, energizing presence on the National Science Board and he was a leader in every sense of the word in the research community prior to that. I was delighted to learn that the White House named him as nominee to serve as the next director of the National Science Foundation. This position requires the ability to connect with all stakeholders in the U.S. science and engineering community, walking the fine line between serving and leading. Panch has the character and knowledge that make him an ideal fit for the job. As my own term draws to a close, I am heartened at the idea of Panch as my successor.”

National Science Board Chair Dr. Diane L. Souvaine issued the following statement:

I’m delighted by the President’s nomination for NSF Director. It’s been a privilege to have worked with Dr. Panchanathan for the past five years, and I know he is drawn to public service for the right reasons — a passion for our country and how our discoveries and innovations can make the world a better place. His leadership at Arizona State University has been key to their growth and emergence as an innovator in higher education, especially in terms of partnerships and entrepreneurship. He is the best kind of disruptor, one who understands that the best way to predict the future is to invent it. In working together with the National Science Board, I have been impressed with his care for and understanding of the National Science Foundation’s unique mission. I saw the same qualities in our current Director, Dr. France Córdova, and they have underpinned her exceptional leadership.”

Read the official White House announcement. And the release from NSF.

Final FY20 Appropriations: Mostly Increases for Research but There is Some Bad News


Just in time for the calendar year 2020, and almost three months after the Fiscal Year 2020 (FY20) began, Congress is finally finishing up its work on the Federal budget with two Minibuses of all the appropriations legislation. For the research community, it’s mostly good news but there are a few clouds in the sky: the National Science Foundation will see very modest increases under the bill, and the defense research accounts are essentially flat-funded.

But first the good news: the big winners in this year’s budget are the Department of Energy Office of Science (6.2 percent increase over FY19), the National Institutes of Health (+6.7 percent), and DOE’s Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E (+16 percent). Additionally, the Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR) program, which is within the DOE’s Office of Science, and where most of the computing research at the agency is located, would see a healthy 4.7 percent increase. Rounding out the good news, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) would see an increase of 4.5 percent to their top line, while the institutes’ Science and Technical Research and Services (STRS) account, where the majority of the agency’s research is housed, would see an increase of 4.0 percent; and NASA would see an increase of 5.3 percent, while NASA Science would receive an increase of 3.3 percent. More specific numbers are below ($ and % changes are FY20 Final against FY19; PBR stands for “President’s Budget Request.”).

FY19 FY20 PBR FY20 House FY20 Senate FY20 Final $ Change % Change
DOE SC Total $6.59B $5.50B $6.87B $7.22B $7.00B +$410M +6.2%
ASCR $936M $921M $957M $1.03B $980M +$44M +$4.7%
ARPA-E $366M 0 $425M $428M $425M +$59M +16%
NIH $39.1B $34.4B $41.1B $42.1B $41.7B +$2.6B +6.7%
NIST Total $986M $687M $1.04B $1.04B $1.03B +$44M +4.5%
STRS $725M $612M $751M $754M $754M +$29M +4.0%
NASA Total $21.50B $21.02B $22.32B $22.75B $22.63B +$1.13B +5.3%
Science $6.91B $6.30B $7.16B $6.91B $7.14B +$230M +3.3%

Considering how terrible the President’s Budget Request was at the start of this process, all these accounts made out very well.

But, regular readers will notice that we haven’t mentioned the NSF’s numbers. That’s because, while the agency will get an increase, the numbers are below both the House and Senate numbers that came out during the year. The likely reason is that there were a large number of demands in the Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) appropriations bill, with the 2020 Census probably taking up the majority of any increases in the bill. NSF’s top line will only increase by 2.5 percent, while the Research and Related Activities (RRA) and Education and Human Resource (EHR) both received larger increases (+3.4 percent and +3.3 percent, respectively).

FY19 FY20 PBR FY20 House FY20 Senate FY20 Final $ Change % Change
NSF Total $8.08B $7.10B $8.64B $8.32B $8.28B +$200M +2.5%
R&RA $6.52B $5.66B $7.10B $6.77B $6.74B +220M +3.4%
EHR $910M $824M $950M $937M $940M +$30M +3.3%

Finally, the appropriations deal contains essentially flat funding for most defense research accounts. As a reminder, the Department of Defense’s Science and Technology (DOD S&T) program is made up of three accounts: 6.1 (basic research), 6.2 (applied research), and 6.3 (advanced technology development). These accounts are themselves made up of individual accounts for each of the three services (Army, Navy, and Air Force), as well as a Defense Wide account. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is a section under the Defense Wide account. Unfortunately, the only account to receive any type of meaningful increase was the 6.1 account (+2.8 percent). The other three received 0 percent, 0.5 percent, and 0.9 percent respectively. In short, not good numbers for DOD research.

FY19 FY20 PBR FY20 House FY20 Senate FY20 Final $ Change % Change
DOD 6.1 $2.53B $2.32B $2.51B $2.63B $2.60B +$70M +2.8%
DOD 6.2 $6.07B $5.32B $5.56B $5.98B $6.07B 0 0
DOD 6.3 $7.36B $6.42B $6.78B $7.10B $7.40B +$40M +0.5%
DARPA $3.43B $3.56B $3.53B $3.36B $3.46B +$30M +0.9%

Where is this in the legislative process? The House passed both spending bills on Tuesday; the Senate is expected to pass them before the Friday December 20th deadline, and then send them to the President’s desk for signing into law. Assuming he does sign them, Fiscal Year 2020 will be in the books and we can look forward to the Fiscal Year 2021 process…which starts, with the President’s Budget Request, at the beginning of February.

Budget Update: Got a Little Good News but More Bad News


When we last discussed the Fiscal Year 2020 Appropriations, we were hopeful that the process was finally starting to move toward completion. A week later, we have some good news but we also have more bad news.

First, the good news: the Senate passed their minibus bundle of appropriations legislation, which includes the Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) appropriations bill. This is the legislation that contains funding for the National Science Foundation, NIST, and NASA (House and Senate numbers). It means that Congressional leaders in both the House and Senate can start work on a compromise bill, which can then be considered by both chambers and passed into law.

Now, the bad news. First, Senate Democrats have blocked consideration of the Defense appropriation bill, citing no agreement on the spending allocations for all of the appropriations bill (called 302(b) allocations), as well as policy differences over funding the President’s proposed border wall. This would impact research at the Defense Department. Also, the likely impeachment of President Trump, and resulting Senate trial, are expected to consume all of Congress’ time for the next several months. With the current continuing resolution set to expire on November 21, Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) is quoted as saying that without a “miracle” another stop-gap bill would be necessary. The likely time frame for that is to push completion of FY20 into February or March of 2020.

Please keep checking back for more updates.

Fiscal Year 2020 Appropriations May, Sort of, be Moving…Maybe…


Regular readers of the Policy Blog will recall that we have been keeping track of the Fiscal Year 2020 appropriations process. The same readers will also remember that the bottleneck for completing the work on next year’s Federal budget has been the Senate. This isn’t unusual, the Senate’s tradition of seeking compromise and agreement, between the majority and minority, means that the gears move much slower (in comparison, the House works as a relatively fast “majority rules” chamber).

But there is some good news on the horizon that signals movement on the stalled legislation. Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) has packaged four appropriations bills into a single piece of legislation and the Senate has taken the first procedural steps to consider the bill. To translate that for the layperson, the Senate is now considering whether to pass or reject this package of bills. If the chamber does pass it, that means the House and Senate can begin negotiating a final compromised bill, which can pass both chambers, and head to the President’s desk to be signed into law.

The Senate package being considered contains the agriculture; interior; transportation and housing and urban development; and commerce, justice and science (CJS) bills. Of most importance to the computing community is the CJS bill, which contains funding for the National Science Foundation, NIST, and NASA (House and Senate numbers). All of these bills are viewed as noncontroversial. Should the legislation move, indications are that a packaged bill of defense, and labor and health and human service (Labor-HHS) would be next on the Senate’s fast track; that would also be good news, considering research funding for the Defense Department (DOD) and NIH could then be finalized.

Now to put hopes into perspective: there are still many potential stumbling blocks. There is still no agreement, between the House and Senate, on the allocations for each appropriations bill (called 302(b) allocations). As well, there are major policy disagreements between the two chambers on defense funding, specifically about allowing DOD funds to be used for construction of the President’s proposed border wall. And the Administration can only be described as a wildcard; their proposed budget, containing significant cuts, has been rejected by Congress again. Will that have an impact on signing funding legislation into law? While there’s potential progress, there’s still a lot of work to do before FY20 is done; keep checking back for updates.

Appropriations Update: Senate NSF Numbers are Out but the Endgame for FY20 is very, very complicated…


In our continuing series looking at Congressional actions on the Fiscal Year 2020 budget, we finally have a look at where the Senate Appropriations Committee stands on funding for some key sciences agencies, with the National Science Foundation being the most important. The basic synopsis is the Senate supplies positive numbers in their blueprint but they are not as generous as what the House of Representatives provided in May. Let’s get into the details.

On September 24th, the Senate Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) Appropriations Subcommittee released the text of their bill. The CJS bill is the appropriations legislation that covers NSF, NIST, and NASA. In that bill, the subcommittee provides NSF with $8.32 billion for FY20, which is an increase of $240 million over FY19 ($8.08 billion) or an increase of 3 percent. Within that number, Research and Related Activities (RRA), the sub-account that contains the majority of the research funding at the agency, would receive a plus up of 3.8 percent, or $250 million over FY19, and would be at $6.77 billion for FY20. Additionally, Education and Human Resources (EHR), would receive $937 million, an increase of $27 million over FY19 ($910 million) or a 3 percent increase. While all good numbers, they are all below what the House of Representatives provided for the agency in their bill.

FY18 FY19 FY20 Senate $ Change % Change
NSF Total $7.77B $8.08B $8.32B +$240M +3.0%
R&RA $6.30B $6.52B $6.77B +$250M +3.8%
EHR $902M $910M $937M +$27M +3.0%

The other science agencies in the Senate CJS bill are NASA and NIST. While the top line number for NASA would see a very healthy increase of 5.8 percent, going from $21.50 billion in FY19 to $22.75 billion for FY20, NASA Science would see none of it; the science account would be funded at the same level as FY19 ($6.91 billion). NIST would fair a bit better, with the top line number being $1.04 billion for FY20, which is an increase of 5.5 percent over FY19 ($986 million). Within the NIST account, the Scientific and Technical Research and Services (STRS) account, where the majority of the research funding at the agency resides, would see an increase of $29 million, or a 4 percent bump up, going from $725 million in FY19 to $754 million in FY20.

FY18 FY19 FY20 Senate $ Change % Change
NIST Total $1.20B $986M $1.04B +$54M +5.5%
STRS $725M $725M $754M +$29M +4.0%
NASA Total $20.74B $21.50B $22.75B +$1.30B +5.8%
Science $6.22B $6.91B $6.91B 0 0

So, what happens now? The full Senate Appropriations Committee has approved the majority of their individual bills, moving the process on to the full chamber for consideration. Unfortunately, that’s where the process has stopped; none of the appropriation bills, including CJS, have received consideration by the full Senate. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) has publicly said he wants to move on these bills soon, possibly as early as next week, but nothing is certain. The only item that has moved is a continuing resolution that was passed to move the deadline for completing work on the FY20 budget to the week before Thanksgiving. Since that was passed, the political focus in Washington has been dominated by the impeachment investigation of the President, and it’s unlikely that there will be any movement on appropriations until at least the beginning of November. And even then, it’s likely that the deadline for finishing the budget will be pushed back further. It’s wait and see territory for the foreseeable future; please check back for more updates.

House Passes CRA-Endorsed Bill to Combat Sexual Harassment in the Sciences


[Editor’s Note: This post was written by CRA’s Tisdale Policy Fellow for Summer 2019, Jesse Anderson.]

On July 23rd, the House passed by voice-vote H.R.36, The Combating Sexual Harassment In Science Act of 2019, which aims to advance efforts to decrease the prevalence of sexual and gender harassment in the STEM research fields. Regular readers will recall that the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee recently held a hearing about sexual harassment in the STEM fields and what federal research agencies can do to reduce its negative impact. H.R. 36 was mentioned during that hearing by both the chair and ranking members of the committee, Chairwoman Johnson (D-TX) and Ranking Member Lucas (R-OK), the original sponsors of the bill. Upon its introduction in January, CRA publicly endorsed the bill.

The bill will now head to the Senate, which does not currently have a companion bill, and it’s unclear whether it will progress further in the legislative process. But, the passage of this bill in the House should be viewed positively, as it means that Congress will take note and continue to monitor. Hopefully, this Congressional action will encourage action from Federal research agencies that have yet to develop their own sexual harassment policies.

Get to Know a Budget Deal: What the New Budget Deal Means and How Does it Impact Research?


As we reported in the House Fiscal Year 2020 (FY20) Defense appropriations post, the Trump Administration and Congressional leaders were homing in on a budget agreement. Well, it sounds like a deal has been struck. This would provide top-line numbers for both defense and non-defense appropriations spending for FY20 and FY21, in addition to lifting the debt ceiling. All this would mean the Senate’s long delayed work on FY20 appropriations bills could start to move forward. Let’s get into the details.

The deal would set FY20 defense spending at $666.5 billion and non-defense spending at $621.5 billion; spending for FY21 would be set at $671.5 billion for defense and $626.5 billion for non-defense. Those non-defense numbers are not tremendously far off from the House Democrat “deemed” numbers of $631 billion for FY20 and $646 billion for FY21. Remember that Congressional Democrats are most concerned with non-defense spending keeping pace with any increases with defense spending, which is a priority for Congressional Republicans and the Administration. With the National Science Foundation and many of the other federal research agencies being in the non-defense side of the federal budget, increases there should translate into increases for research.

Two additional points of information: first, the deal would set a $2.5 billion exemption for the 2020 Census. This is good news because the Census sits in the same appropriations bill (ie: the same pot of money) as NSF, NIST, NASA, and NOAH; so, there is less likelihood of cuts to these accounts. Additionally, the budget deal includes $77.4 billion in offsets; however, those offsets sound to be pretty benign and mostly gimmicky.

What is not covered under this agreement? There is no guarantee that FY20 appropriations will be completed, so there is still that political fight to be had. And with Congressional Democrats and the Trump Administration being far apart on policy issues with regard to the Departments of Homeland Security and Defense, we can expect those bills to get dragged out (similar to last year). While there was an agreement to not include “poison pills or additional policy riders” in final appropriations bills, that’s likely to be skirted or outright not followed (after all, one person’s poison pill is another’s reasonable policy change). Additionally, the deal does have to be accepted by both caucus’s rank-and-file, which is not a foregone conclusion. Bottom line: there is still a long way to go before Fiscal Year 2020 is completed, but at least there’s a path forward. Keep checking back for new updates.

Appropriations Update: House Defense FY20 R&D Numbers are Better than the Administration’s, but are not Great


In our continuing series looking at the House of Representative’s actions on Fiscal Year 2020 (FY20), we turn to the House Defense Appropriations bill, which was passed in June. The Department of Defense’s Science and Technology (DOD S&T) program is made up of three accounts: 6.1 (basic research), 6.2 (applied research), and 6.3 (advanced technology development). These accounts are themselves made up of individual accounts for each of the three services (Army, Navy, and Air Force), as well as a Defense Wide account. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is a section under the Defense Wide account. Unfortunately, the numbers that the House settled on for these accounts are not good, but they are better than what the Administration requested.

First, let’s take a moment to look at the Trump Administration’s request for these accounts from back in March. The Administration requested cuts, relative to FY19, to all three accounts (-8 percent for 6.1; -12 percent for 6.2; and -13 percent for 6.3), while recommending an increase to DARPA (+3.8 percent). While disconcerting, especially given the Administration’s push to increase overall defense spending, this has been the norm for the past three years. The general view from the policy community is that Pentagon leaders do this as a deliberate budget tactic; namely that they pull money from what is seen as a Congressional priority (ie: research funding) to put toward something else that does not have the same support. If it works, Congress puts money back into R&D and the money “sticks” elsewhere in the DOD budget. The obvious pitfall is if Congress doesn’t put that money back into research, then these accounts are cut.

That’s what it looks like the problem is this year, at least with the House numbers. For all three accounts, the House’s plan calls for less money than last year’s budget but more than what the Administration requested (see the chart below; I’m including the Presidential Budget Request (PBR) in the chart below for comparison). And DARPA would see an increase over FY19 funding, but less than what the President requested for FY20. The argument could be made that the House is simply mitigating Administration cuts.

FY19 FY20 PBR $ Change % Change FY20 House $ Change % Change
DOD 6.1 $2.53B $2.32B -$210M -8.4% $2.51B -$220M -0.8%
DOD 6.2 $6.07B $5.32B -$750M -12.6% $5.56B -$510M -8.4%
DOD 6.3 $7.36B $6.42B -$940M -13.8% $6.78B -$580M -7.9%
DARPA $3.43B $3.56B +$130M +3.8% $3.53B +$100M +2.9%

Another possibility is that the House is setting up their own negotiating ploy. In the ongoing negotiations over the whole Federal budget, the Democrat controlled House wants to make sure that domestic spending is increased to the same extent as defense spending; while the Trump Administration’s stance is to boost defense, while cutting domestic. The House Appropriators’ thinking could be, by cutting an Administration priority now, they could get concessions in later negotiations. Assuming this is correct, it makes the Senate Defense numbers all the more important, as they are likely to be somewhere in the middle and close to where a final number would end up.

With regard to the Senate numbers, there is potentially good news on the horizon. News reports say that the Administration and Congressional leaders are close to agreeing to a budget deal that would allow the Senate to begin work on their appropriations bills. While short on details, it sounds like the agreement is done in principle, with specifics still needing to be worked out. This is a big change from what we reported with the Energy and Water appropriations bill.

It’s important to understand what would be agreed to with this budget deal and what wouldn’t. It would set a top line number for the entire federal budget; this would allow the Senate to quickly work on their individual appropriation bills and hopefully have a conferenced budget deal for consideration in the October/November timeframe. It would not guarantee those bills to be passed. And the Administration remains an unknown variable in this equation; how will the President act? Fiscal Year 2020 is far from over, so be sure to check back for new developments.

Appropriations Update: House FY20 Energy & Water Bill is out and there are Reasons for Optimism


[Editor’s Note: This post was written by CRA’s Tisdale Policy Fellow for Summer 2019, Jesse Anderson.]

In June, the House of Representatives passed their version of the Fiscal Year 2020 (FY20) Energy and Water appropriations bill, including increases for some key computing programs at Department of Energy. This bill contains the budgets for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science (DOE SC) and ARPA-E, as well as funding for the Exascale Computing R&D program, for which DOE is the lead federal agency. While the increases are probably positive news for the computing research community, uncertainty about overall Federal spending levels likely puts these specific appropriations levels in doubt. Nevertheless, the bills at least send a signal about the areas House Democrats see as priorities for the Federal government in FY20.

The bill proposes a healthy increase for the Office of Science of $270 million (a 4 percent increase from FY19 levels), bringing the agency’s budget to $6.8 billion for FY20. Within the Office of Science, the Advanced Scientific Computing Research program, which houses the majority of the computing research at DOE, would see an increase of 2.2 percent – going from $936 million in FY19 to $957 million in FY20. Additionally, the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility and the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility would receive increases of 7 percent and 21 percent, respectively; while the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s funding level is flat. The committee also included language in its report that expressed its commitment to advancing Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning research with increases in funding for infrastructure to augment STEM programs. The committee also recommended $15 million for AI research programs, and provided an increase of nearly 19 percent to the Math and Computer Science program within ASCR. It’s not clear how much of that increase will go towards research efforts and how much will be targeted towards enabling deployment of the Department’s two exascale computing systems in FY21-FY23. But overall, these increases appear to reflect the committee’s dedication to advancing scientific research.

The Exascale Computing program, which has received significant increases over the last three fiscal years, would see a cut of $36 million under the House’s plan. While this represents a 16 percent decrease from FY19 (to $225 million), it falls in line with what the agency requested as DOE moves the program further from R&D and towards deployment.

Also of note is the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy, or ARPA-E. It would receive $425 million for FY20, a 16 percent increase from $366 million in FY19. The committee dismissed the President’s request to zero the agency’s budget as “short-sighted” and instead chose to increase funding for the agency. Interestingly, in testimony before the House Science, Space, and Technology committee in June, Energy Secretary Rick Perry — who, as a cabinet secretary, is expected to defend the President’s budget request — instead agreed with the House’s thinking about ARPA-E, telling the committee “I respect [the White House’s Office of Management and Budget’s] work and what they do, but I’ll be honest. I respect this Congress more.”

The failure so far of Congress to reach a budget resolution setting spending caps for Congressional appropriators will make reconciling spending bills between the House and Senate — who potentially will be using different spending caps — very difficult. It will likely also set up a confrontation with the President, who has already vowed to veto the House spending levels. It may be some time before we see any progress on the Senate side. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) recently announced that he won’t be doing any markups on the Senate spending bills until a budget caps deal is agreed upon by both chambers of Congress and the President. The likely outcome is an impasse on the entire federal budget until at least the end of the fiscal year (end of September), and perhaps well after that. Only time will tell how this plays out; CRA will continue to follow the budget and will provide updates on future developments.

House Science Committee Explores the Ethical and Social Implications of AI


[Editor’s Note: This post was written by CRA’s new Tisdale Policy Fellow for Summer 2019, Jesse Anderson.]

On Wednesday, June 26 the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee held a hearing titled Artificial Intelligence: Societal and Ethical Implications to review the diverse ethical and social implications of Artificial Intelligence (AI). The committee heard from panelists about the complications of AI as well as several policy recommendations.

Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) emphasized the need for more conscious involvement of ethics at every stage of the AI research and development process, noting that, “while a few individual agencies are making ethics a priority, the Administration’s executive order and strategic plan fall short in that regard.” Chairwoman Johnson noted that, though ethics have been considered in the creation of AI technology, they are largely seen, “as an add-on rather than an integral component of all AI R&D.” Johnson called for more investment in AI R&D to maintain the nation’s global dominance in the field. Johnson noted that more investment in the field is critical for continued US leadership in AI, and that leadership will have the added benefit of instilling American values into AI systems. Jim Baird (R-Indiana) reiterated Johnson’s call for more investment toward resources for researchers. He underscored the need for investment in the field to sustain America’s superiority in AI R&D.

The witnesses before the committee were Meredith Whittaker, Co-Founder, AI Now Institute, New York University; Jack Clark, Policy Director, OpenAI; Joy Buolamwini, Founder, Algorithmic Justice League; and Georgia Tourassi, Director, Health Data Sciences Institute, Oak Ridge National Laboratory. They illuminated several of the ethical challenges that AI presents and suggested some policy solutions. Among the solutions discussed, many of the panelists emphasized the need for interdisciplinary research in AI and the direction of more advanced resources to researchers.

The panelists spotlighted the issue of bias encoding in AI technology, where innovators code human biases into the technology. Whittaker noted several instances of gender discrimination – such as studies that show that, “voice recognition hears masculine sounding voices better than feminine sounding voices.” Clark agreed, saying that the need for value judgments when programming AI can lead to the passage of biased values. The concentration of AI institutions, Whittaker argued, helps companies purvey marketing materials that only explain the benefits of AI. She also noted that many of these companies are “non-diverse.” Whittaker, like Johnson, said that further research necessitates more investment. This investment would go toward resources that researchers would otherwise have to access through employment at large technology companies. These resources would allow researchers to reinforce America’s technological prowess in the AI field. Clark also suggested increased funding for interdisciplinary research, arguing that bringing together diverse professionals will help combat the bias issues. Clark called for the government to convene with academia and industry to devise more effective policy. He too underscored the importance of broadening the scope of resources available to researchers.

Buolamwini criticized the lack of transparency in the tech industry as well as a reliance on poor data. Like other panelists, she provided real-life examples of AI’s implications. Buolamwini called attention to a June 2019 study that, “showed that for the task of pedestrian tracking children were less likely to be detected than adults.” Like Clark, she emphasized the need for more funding toward AI research. This government-funded research on human centered AI needs to be interdisciplinary and inclusive, as Buolamwini noted that marginalized demographics bear the brunt of AI’s negative implications.

As Johnson indicates, “leadership is not just about advancing the technology, it’s about advancing it responsibly.” The committee widely agreed that a focus on interdisciplinary research, further investment in resources for researchers, and the retention of global dominance in the AI field will be critical aspects of future policy solutions. AI will continue to be a significant policy concern for Congress and the Federal government as a whole. CRA will continue to monitor developments that arise in government and policy circles; be sure to check back for new updates.

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