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.

In Advance of Facebook Testimony, ACM’s US Public Policy Committee Raises Issues for Congress to Consider


In advance of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg’s three days of appearances before congressional committees starting today, ACM’s US Public Policy Council sent the following letter to the members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee. It’s a strong statement from USACM, noting the importance of  “understand[ing] how privacy and trust in an era of big data, pervasive networks and socially embedded platforms must be addressed in order to promote the public interest broadly in our society, including specifically the integrity of our democratic institutions.”

Dear Senators Grassley, Thune, Feinstein and Nelson:

ACM, the Association for Computing Machinery, is the world’s largest and oldest association of computing professionals representing approximately 50,000 individuals in the United States and 100,000 worldwide. Its US Public Policy Council (USACM) is charged with providing policy and law makers throughout government with timely, substantive and apolitical input on computing technology and the legal and social issues to which it gives rise.

On behalf of USACM, thank you and the Committees for undertaking a full and public exploration of the causes, scope, consequences and implications of the enormous breaches of privacy and public trust resulting from Facebook’s and outside parties’ use and misuse of vast amounts of Facebook users’ and millions of others’ data. The technical experts we represent – including luminaries in computer science, engineering and other computing disciplines – stand ready to lend their expertise to you and your staffs at any time as the hearing and legislative processes progress.

USACM believes that the issues raised by this incident, and the intense scrutiny now appropriately being brought to bear on it, make this a watershed moment. The issue and challenge is not merely how to address the failings of a single company, but to understand how privacy and trust in an era of big data, pervasive networks and socially embedded platforms must be addressed in order to promote the public interest broadly in our society, including specifically the integrity of our democratic institutions.

As your Committees prepare to convene, USACM offers the following broad observations grounded in our technical understanding and commitment to the highest ethical standards in our professional practice:

  • It is critical to understand the full scale and consequences of how Facebook’s past and present business practices or failures compromised, and may continue to undermine, users’ and others’ privacy and data security. It is also critical, however, to understand the technology underlying its actions and omissions so that truly effective technical and legal means may be designed to assure the protection of privacy by limiting data collection and sharing, ensuring real user consent and notice, and providing full transparency and accountability to its community members. These and other fundamental principles are detailed in USACM’s 2018 Statement on the Importance of Preserving Personal Privacy;
  • The actions and omissions already confirmed or publicly acknowledged to have occurred by Facebook appear to stem from systemic deficiencies in a range of processes considered essential by computing professionals, including proactive risk assessment and management, as well as protecting security and privacy by design;
  • Facebook’s actions and omissions should be measured against all appropriate ethical standards. The first principle of ACM’s long-established Code of Ethics states that, “An essential aim of computing professionals is to minimize negative consequences of computing systems . . . and ensure that the products of their efforts will be used in socially responsible ways.” Adhering to broadly accepted social norms the ethical code also requires that computing professionals “avoid harm to others,” where harm includes injury, negative consequences, or undesirable loss of information or property.
  • The present controversy underscores that we are living in an era of mega-scale data sets and once inconceivable computational power. Consequently, the nature, scale, depth and consequences of the data, technical and ethical breaches understood to have occurred thus far in the Facebook case are unlikely to be confined to a single company, technology or industry. That argues strongly for Congress to comprehensively revisit whether the public interest can adequately be protected by current legal definitions of consent, the present scope of federal enforcement authority, and existing penalties for breach of the public’s privacy and trust on a massive scale; and
  • Size and power are not the only consequential hallmarks of the new information era. Ever more complicated and multiplying synergies between technologies (such as platform architecture, data aggregation, and micro-targeting algorithms) exponentially increase the vulnerability of personal privacy. Similarly increasing complexity in the ways that social media continues to be woven into modern life amplifies the threat. Together these trends make it clear that addressing separate elements of this rapidly changing ecosystem in isolation is no longer a viable means of protecting the public interest. Rather, we urge Congress to consider new and holistic ways of conceptualizing privacy and its protection.

Thank you again for your work at this pivotal time and for formally including this correspondence and the attached Statement in the record of your upcoming hearing. USACM looks forward to assisting you and your staffs in the future. To arrange a technical briefing, or should you have any other questions, please contact ACM’s Director of Global Public Policy, Adam Eisgrau, at 202-580-6555 or eisgrau@acm.org.

Sincerely,

Stuart Shapiro, Chair

cc: Members of the Senate Commerce and Judiciary Committees

Science Fares Well in Final FY 2018 Spending Bill


Though it required negotiations that stretched nearly seven months into the fiscal year it is designed to fund, the FY 2018 Omnibus Appropriations act won the approval of a sizable majority in Congress and the reluctant approval of the President at the end of March, providing substantial boosts in Federal spending, including healthy increases to science investments across the government.

Passage of the omnibus bill was made possible by an agreement in February to increase statutory limits on discretionary spending for FY 2018 and FY 2019. That extra spending room ensured that congressional appropriators could boost military spending sufficiently to satisfy a majority of the GOP and increased non-defense spending sufficiently to woo enough congressional Democrats to overcome opposition from the conservative Freedom Caucus in the House. In the end, the 2,000+ page bill boosts Federal discretionary spending to $1.3 trillion in FY 18, and boosts Federal R&D efforts by nearly 13 percent.

A bar graph showing the relative percentage increases of selected research accounts in the final FY 2018 Omnibus Appropriations Bill. While appropriators generally don’t spread funding increases evenly throughout their bills, overall, science agencies fare well in this bill, in many cases receiving meaningful increases for the first time in several years.

 

National Science Foundation

Overall, NSF will see an increase of 3.9 percent in FY 18, bringing its total budget to $7.77 billion, $295 million more than FY 17. The Research and Related Activities Account — the home of the Foundation’s research directorates, including the Computing and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) directorate — will see an increase of 5 percent to $6.3 billion, the highest it has received since FY 10. The appropriators were silent on how that money ought to be distributed to the various directorates, but historically, the NSF Director has tried to distribute increases proportionately across the directorates. NSF’s Education and Human Resources Directorate, home to many of NSF’s STEM Education programs, will see an increase of 2.5 percent, bringing its total budget to $902 million in FY 18.

Department of Energy

The Department of Energy’s Office of Science received one of the largest increases among science agencies in the bill, growing 16.1 percent to $6.26 billion in FY18. Included in that increase is a substantial 25.1 percent increase to the Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR) program. Much of the ASCR increase is focused on the office’s exascale efforts, with the Exascale program receiving an increase of 25 percent (to $205 million), including increases to the Mathematics and Computer Science research accounts, as well as significant increases to current DOE HPC labs at Argonne and Oak Ridge in preparation for exascale deployments beginning in 2021. ARPA-E, which faced elimination threats in both the President’s budget and the House appropriations bill, survives in the omnibus and grows to $335 million, an all-time high funding level for the office.

National Institutes of Health

NIH will grow $3 billion, or 9 percent, in FY 18 — $10 billion more than the President’s request for the agency. The omnibus increases the size of the BRAIN Initiative to $400 million in FY18. Of note for NIH is a proposal in the President’s budget for next year (FY 19) that would consolidate three agencies currently under the Department of Health and Human Services — the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR), the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health — into NIH. Given that these agencies — NIDILRR in particular — support a significant amount of work in computing and engineering, there are concerns in the research community that a move into NIH, which has a much different mission and culture than NIDILRR, would change the focus of the research in non-beneficial ways. Appropriators in the FY 18 omnibus gave no indication that they support the proposed move for FY 19, but this is something that CRA, along with other members of the computing research community, are following.

Department of Defense

Across the department, basic research (6.1) will see an increase of 2.9 percent to $2.3 billion in FY 18, applied research (6.2) will grow 7.3 percent to $5.7 billion, and advanced technology development will increase 6.4 percent to $6.9 billion. DARPA will see its budget increase 6.3 percent to $3.1 billion, including a 20 percent increase to the basic sciences and large increases for ICT and electronics research, along with biotech and space technologies.

NASA

NASA receives an overall increase of 6 percent to $21 billion. NASA Science accounts will grow 7.1 percent to $6.2 billion in FY 18.

National Institute of Standards and Technology

NIST Labs will wee an increase of 5 percent to $725 million.

Department of Homeland Security

The Science and Technology directorate at DHS will see a 7.6 percent increase to $841 million. Of note, the President’s FY 19 budget request calls for DHS’ cyber security research efforts, currently housed in the S&T directorate, to be moved outside of S&T to the National Protections and Programs Directorate (NPPD), a more operationally-oriented office than S&T, raising concerns that the character of the research supported now in the program might change to reflect shorter-term operational needs. CRA and others in the computing research community are still considering the impact of this proposal on cyber security research at DHS and monitoring progress on this through the FY 19 appropriations cycle.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

NOAA will see an increase of 6.7 percent to $549 million in FY 18.

United States Geologic Survey

USGS increases 5.8 percent to $1.1 billion.

Environmental Protection Agency

EPA’s Science and Technology program, a target of many on the right in Congress for its work on climate change research, will be flat funded in FY 18 at $706 million. Given the antagonism the agency faces, even from the Chair of the House Science Committee, a flat budget in FY 18 might be considered a positive outcome.

Computer Science Education Funding

The Explanatory Statement that accompanies the omnibus bill, which does not technically have the force of law but is treated as it does by the agencies, includes two explicit call outs for support of computer science education efforts (page 61 and 62) in two Department of Education grant programs. The Student Support and Academic Enrichment grant program, boosted from $400 million to $1.1 billion in the bill is directed to “especially support pre-kindergarten through grade 12 computer science education programs that address the enrollment and achievement gap for underrepresented students such as minorities, girls, and youths from families living at or below the poverty line.” The Education Innovation and Research program is the subject of language that carves out $50 million for “innovative STEM education projects, including computer science education.”

Though neither piece of language guarantees new funding for efforts to improve CS Ed in the states, the explicit mention of computer science education for the first time affirms Congress’ belief in the appropriateness of those programs granting funding to CS Ed efforts. How much CS education flows will largely depend on the kind and quality of proposals received and the priority the Department of Education places on CS education.

Infrastructure Funding

The omnibus boosts infrastructure spending by $11 billion to $21 billion in FY 18. Included is $265 million to increase rural broadband expansion through USDA; $398 million to support “cutting-edge science at National Labs and other DOE sites”; and, $500 million for “critical funds for cyber infrastructure resilience and protection.

In sum, science agencies gained nearly across the board in the FY 18 appropriations process, reversing in many cases an 8 year trend of flat or declining budgets. In addition, the budget agreement passed in February allows for a little additional growth in the FY 19 appropriations process — about 3 percent for non-defense discretionary accounts — so we will be monitoring the process already underway and advocating for a continued priority on investments in research. As noted above, we will also be watching and advocating about the programmatic changes at HHS and DHS proposed by the President for FY 19 and will have all the details on the Computing Research Policy Blog (cra.org/blog) as we learn them.

Given that this is a mid-term election year, it is almost a guarantee that the FY 19 appropriations will not be completed until after the election in mid-November at the earliest. Indeed, how that November election shakes out will determine the end game for the appropriations process. Congress may elect to finish appropriations in a lame duck session after the election or punt the whole process to the new congress in the new year. Whatever happens, we will have all the details here

First Update on Science Funding in the Final FY2018 Omnibus


The House Republican leadership tonight finally released their omnibus appropriations bill containing final funding for agencies in FY 2018. You’ll recall that Congress and the Administration reached a budget agreement that would allow an increase to non-defense discretionary spending of about 13 percent for FY 18 and another 3 percent for FY 19. The bill is over 2,000 pages, and contains $1.3 trillion in appropriations, so we don’t yet have all the details. Not surprisingly, it appears that appropriators did not spread the extra funding around equally. Here’s some of what we know so far:

+ NSF would see a ~5.5 percent increase in research funding in FY18 vs. FY17. (R&RA would grow to $6.3 billion from $6.0 billion.) Overall NSF funding would be $7.8 billion in FY18, an increase of $295 million vs. FY17.

+ NIH would see an increase of $3 billion to $37 billion, an increase of nearly 9 percent.

+ NASA would see a 6 percent increase, $1.1 billion above FY17. Includes an increase of $457 million for NASA Science programs.

+ DOE Science would increase $868 million to $6.26 billion, an increase of 16 percent vs. FY17. ARPA-E lives on with $353 million in funding in FY18. No details on Advanced Scientific Computing Research or Exascale yet.

+ The omnibus would boost infrastructure spending to $21 billion, including $625 million to increase and expedite rural broadband expansion within USDA, $398 million to support “cutting-edge science at National labs and other DOE sites,” and $500 million for “critical funds for cyber infrastructure resilience and protection.”

Congress has got to pass the omnibus by midnight Friday or risk another shutdown. It appears that a sufficient number of Democrats have signed off on the bill to ensure its passage and President Trump has already indicated his support for the measure. So while there’s a risk it may take longer than March 23rd to get it done — and so we might see a short shutdown or a very short-term CR — this likely will ultimately pass.

Though not all Federal science agencies will see the double-digit increases that might have been possible under the budget agreement, it does appear that for the first time in a *long* time — like, FY2010 in the case of NSF — science agencies will see real increases as a result of this bill.

We’ll have more detail as we learn it…

Links to summaries of the various approps bills included in the omnibus (all of them) and to the bill itself, all 2,223 pages of it are here:
https://appropriations.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=395158

Department of Energy FY 2019 Request: Good for Computing but with Some Asterisks


Last month, President Trump released his budget request for Fiscal Year 2019. As we have done in years past, the CRA Policy Blog will be doing a series of posts on the assorted agency budgets that are important to the computing research community. In this post we highlight the Department of Energy (DOE).

The two key parts of DOE for the computing community are the Office of Science (SC), home of most of the agency’s basic research support, and ARPA-E, or the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. For SC, the President’s FY 2019 is flat-funded at FY17’s number of $5.39 billion (remember, we are still waiting on FY18 to be settled by Congress, which has until March 23 to do so). While that doesn’t look good, the Advanced Scientific Computing Research program, which is within the Office of Science, and where most of the computing research at the agency is located, would receive a significant increase over FY17 levels; the program would be funded at $899 million, an increase of $252 million or 39 percent. As for ARPA-E, it would once again be zeroed out, as it was in the President’s budget request last year. Let’s get into the details.

Within ASCR, the program is divided into three parts: Mathematical, Computational, & Computer Sciences Research; High Performance Computing & Networking Facilities; and the Exascale Computing Project (ECP). Our regular readers will remember that in last year’s request, the Administration slated DOE to make one exascale system operational by 2021 and a second one a year later, but those plans had hinted at cannibalizing the research budget to accomplish it.

That goal is still in place but there is now at least some emphasis on the research side as well. Mathematical, Computational, & Computer Sciences Research would receive a plus up of $33 million, going from $114 million in FY17 to $147 million in FY19 (a 29 percent increase). But the majority of the increase would go to High Performance Computing & Networking Facilities (up $150 million, going from $370 million in FY17 to $520 million in FY19, a 41 percent increase) and ECP (up $69 million, going from $164 million in FY17 to $233 million in FY19, an increase of 42 percent). Both of these accounts are on the computer construction and facilities side of ASCR, rather than the research side, with large increases going to the Leadership Computing Facilities (LCF) subaccount to prepare for an exascale system.

Within the budget justification document, DOE says the department is funding computing research to, “reassert(ing) U.S. leadership in this critical area.” The justification goes on to state that, “this Request also increases support for ASCR’s fundamental research in Applied Mathematics and Computational Partnerships with a focus on advanced technologies such as quantum information science, including quantum computing and networking, and on new methods, software and tools for scientific machine learning for discovery and decision support.” However, exascale is shown to be DOE’s main goal for the program, as the document says the increases for the LCFs are to, “continue site preparations and non-recurring engineering investment with their vendors that will allow them to deploy at least one exascale-capable system as rapidly as possible.”

With regard to ARPA-E, there isn’t language to justify the elimination of the program. To give some history, some policymakers have never embraced the agency, particularly those who view the applied research the agency performs as best done by industry; the Administration seems to embrace this viewpoint. And ARPA-E has been used as a bargaining chip in Congress, between those who champion the agency’s mission and those who want to eliminate it; that’s expected to continue. The agency’s ultimate fate is far from certain though.

With that in mind, what are the prospects in Congress for the agency’s budget request? Probably pretty good. Computing research enjoys broad support in both parties in Congress. However, the sticking points will be ARPA-E and the other research projects within the Office of Science. Those research areas within SC, such as Fusion, Biological & Environmental Research, and Basic Energy Sciences, are slated for reductions in this request; ASCR is the only one with an increase. Congress is likely to see that as robbing Peter to pay Paul; the question then becomes, where does any extra money for those other research areas come from? Given the budget deal that was reached last month, DOE SC could receive a boast that is shared equally. But that’s not a given and only time will tell what happens. We’ll keep tracking the budget as it moves through the process, so check back for updates.

President’s Budget Request a Mixed Bag for Science, but it Could Have Been Much Worse


What a difference a budget deal makes…

The President’s budget request for FY 2019, released yesterday, includes some modest gains and some big losses for Federal science agencies — details below, but on the whole a rather mixed bag for those who believe in the importance of the Federal investment in fundamental research. But it could have been much worse.

We’d gotten warning that the budget would likely slash science investments at multiple agencies in fairly dramatic ways. But that was before Congress and the Administration managed to agree late last week — with only a brief government shutdown — on a two year budget deal that increased budget caps on both defense and non-defense discretionary spending. That agreement, reached early Friday morning, boosted the non-defense discretionary spending cap by 26 percent over the next two years, and sent the White House’s Office of Management and Budget back to the drawing board over the weekend, revamping the President’s planned request to reflect the new fiscal reality.

And that’s a good thing, because the President’s planned budget for science was abysmal. We know some of the details about that original plan because the Administration didn’t have time to revamp some of the supporting documentation they’ve traditionally produced to accompany the budget request. An Analytical Perspectives volume is traditionally included with the budget submission and it includes budget breakdowns by theme, including a whole chapter on Research and Development. In that chapter you’ll find descriptions of the President’s priorities for Federal R&D, including “Protecting the Homeland from Physical and Cyber Attacks,” “Harnessing Artificial Intelligence and High Performance Computing,” and “Integrating Autonomous and Unmanned Vehicles into the Transportation Network,” but also several charts that detail what the Administration is requesting for each of the agencies involved in R&D work. Depressingly, most of the charts detail requests with double-digit percentage decreases for Federal science programs. For the National Science Foundation, for example, the only Federal agency whose mission includes support for all the fundamental science and engineering disciplines, here’s what the Administration planned to request for FY 2019:

[The column headings are: 2017 Actual; 2018 Annualized CR; 2019 Proposed; Dollar Change 2018 v 2019; Percent Change 2018 v 2019. So the deltas in the last two columns are compared to a FY18 budget that assumes flat funding from a continuing resolution.] 

But the budget agreement changed most of that. With new caps that made room for $132 billion in additional non-defense spending, President Trump and his OMB Director Mick Mulvaney made the decision to add just $75 billion back to the non-defense budget. In his transmittal letter to Congress, Mulvaney acknowledged that though the President agreed to the new budget caps by signing them into law, he didn’t believe that the increases were completely justified for non-defense spending, so his request effectively leaves $57 billion in potential spending on the table.

Fortunately for the computing research community, NSF — which funds about 82 percent of all fundamental computing research in U.S. universities — was one of the agencies that benefitted from this last minute revamp. The President’s request calls for flat funding for the agency overall, but a 2 percent increase for NSF’s research accounts — a marked improvement over the 29 percent decrease originally considered before the budget deal. The last-minute revamp of the NSF budget means we don’t have much detail about how the agency would plan to spend the 2 percent windfall. In fact, here is the entirety of the agency’s budget justification (last year it was 470 pages):

Other “winners” (loosely defined) among research agencies in the President’s budget include:

  • Department of Defense Science and Technology: overall, up 2.3 percent over FY17; Basic Research (6.1) up 0.5 percent; Applied Research (6.2) down 4.4 percent; Advanced Technology Development (6.3) down 0.9 percent. DARPA is the big winner in DOD S&T with an increase of about 19 percent vs. FY17 in the President’s plan.
  • National Institutes of Health: NIH was also slated for a substantial cut (27 percent) in Trump’s initial plans for FY 2019, but emerged from the weekend with a flat budget request vs. FY17.
  • Department of Energy Office of Science: Slated to receive a 22 percent cut, instead would also get flat funding vs. FY17 in the President’s budget. Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR) — primarily because exascale is a clear Administration priority, would see a 39 percent increase vs. FY17, growing to nearly $900 million.

But other agencies still find themselves subject to deep cuts in the President’s plan, even after the budget cap deal:

  • Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E): The President’s plan once again eliminates funding for the ~$300 million agency. The President’s FY 2018 budget called for the program’s elimination, but congressional appropriators are split on whether to follow through. House appropriators agree with the President’s request to close the office, Senate appropriators included $330 million for the agency in their FY18 appropriation.
  • National Institute of Standards and Technology: NIST’s Science and Technical Research and Services (STRS) would see a 16 percent reduction vs. FY17 under the President’s plan. NIST’s Manufacturing Extensions Partnership would be eliminated under the budget.
  • Climate Research: The President’s budget would eliminate climate research programs at EPA, support only 3 of 8 USGS Climate Science Centers, and cancel five NASA earth science missions.

Of course, the President’s budget request is just the starting point in a year-long (or longer) process of appropriating funding for Federal agencies. Congress has the key role to play in actually putting numbers to these programs, and they’ve already demonstrated no serious commitment to budget suggestions from this Administration. Odds are also good that they’ll find ways to spend that extra $57 billion in non-defense spending the President didn’t see fit to include in his request.

There are also many other details about this budget we’re still waiting to learn — how NSF plans to prioritize its research, what shifts in cyber security research funding at the Department of Homeland Security mean for the character of the work supported, how the Department of Energy expects to ramp up exascale funding…to name just a few.  And, of course, we still don’t know how congressional appropriators plan to put that extra spending towards the unfinished FY 2018 appropriations, something they need to decide before March 23rd, when the current continuing resolution funding government expires.

So while this is an important first step in science funding for FY19, it’s just the start of a long process. It would have been better to find more support from the President for the investments that help fuel the innovation that drives the nation’s economy and our competitiveness, but this is just the first word in the conversation and not the last. We’ll continue to weigh in with policymakers about the importance of the Federal investment in research. And we’ll track it all and report what we learn here, so stay tuned!

Budget Deal for FY18 and FY19 In Sight; Waiting for it to Cross the Finish Line


Update: 2/9/18 President Trump signed the budget agreement into law early Friday morning.

Original Post: Big news out of Washington today is that there is a new budget deal that could provide much needed relief to Federal science research agencies. Similar to the deals from 2013 and 2015, this agreement would suspend the budgetary caps imposed in the 2011 Budget Control Act for two years. It would provide $165 billion in additional spending for defense discretionary accounts over two years, a key demand for Congressional Republicans and the Administration, and $131 billion in additional spending for domestic accounts over two years, a demand of Congressional Democrats. While not the 1-to-1, defense to domestic spending, increase that Democrats were pushing for it is a middle ground both sides arrived at to get the deal done. Additionally, the agreement suspends the debt limit until March 2019. There are a number of other smaller additions to the deal and one big omission (no final decision on DACA, or Dreamers, was included).

Why is this a big deal? We’ve been hearing from key appropriators for some time that if they can get relief from the budget caps (particularly domestic spending, as that includes NSF), increases for research would be a priority. So this is potentially great news for our community and the research community as a whole. Additionally, this can finally put Fiscal Year 2018 funding to bed, a full six months after the fiscal year started on Oct 1st. It also makes Fiscal Year 2019 easier to pass, as there is agreement on funding levels for next year.

The Senate is expected to take votes on the bill Thursday afternoon; it is likely to pass easily (as the deal is predominately Senate negotiated legislation). Then it gets a bit more uncertain, as the House must take it up. This sets up an interesting conflict in both political parties. On the Republican side, they are split between defense hawks, who want large increases to defense spending, and fiscal hawks, who want large reductions to Federal spending; the fiscal hawks are likely to not vote for this agreement. In past cases, Republican leadership was able to count on Democratic votes to make up the votes they lose in their own party. However, the Democratic Caucus is now split because of the lack of DACA protections in the bill; for example, Minority Leader Pelosi has publicly said she will not vote for it. However, the Democrats have also said they are not whipping votes (ie: enforcing a party-line vote) on the agreement; so there is some uncertainty about how the House Democrats are going to vote. The general expectation is the agreement will pass the House but it’s expected to be a relatively close vote.

We’ll keep our eyes and ears on this as it unfolds and will update as events progress, so please check back.

Computing Researchers Make the Case for Intelligent Infrastructure at Congressional Briefing


Panelists for Intelligent Infrastructure Briefing

From left to right: Dan Lopresti, Henning Schulzrinne, Matt Wansley, Nadya Bliss, Elizabeth Mynatt participate in a congressional briefing on Intelligent Infrastructure Research.

On a day when President Donald J. Trump is expected to use his State of the Union address to unveil his administration’s plans for nationwide infrastructure investment, a panel representing computing researchers in academia and industry told a group of congressional staffers and other stakeholders that while those infrastructure needs are critical, it would be shortsighted to simply replicate more of what we have. Instead, they urged, now we have an opportunity to invest in the research and make progress on the policies that would allow for an “intelligent infrastructure” that would provide a foundation for increased safety and resilience, improved efficiencies and civic services, and broader economic opportunities and job growth.

The panel —  led by moderator Dan Lopresti, Chair of the Department of Computer Science at Lehigh University, along with Henning Schulzrinne of Columbia (and former CTO of the Federal Communication Commission); Matt Wansley, General Counsel for nuTonomy, a startup focused on autonomous vehicle technologies; Nadya Bliss, the Director of the Global Security Institute at Arizona State; and Beth Mynatt, Director of the Institute for People and Technology at Georgia Tech — highlighted the promise of the technologies that will enable more intelligent infrastructures, but also noted critical gaps and barriers to successful deployments. The briefing was sponsored by CRA, along with honorary co-hosts Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), Chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Ranking Member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

Henning Schulzrinne, of Columbia University

Henning Schulzrinne, of Columbia University, addresses the attendees of the Capitol Hill briefing.

Intelligent infrastructure is the deep embedding of sensing, computing, and communications capabilities into traditional urban and rural physical infrastructures such as roads, buildings, bridges, pipelines, water and electric distribution systems for the purpose of increasing efficiency, resiliency, and safety. Intelligent infrastructure has a wide range of applications, including transportation, energy management, public safety and security, disaster response, agriculture, and health.

“The scope of the transformation we are facing is truly unprecedented,” Lopresti noted. “It’s hard to find proper comparisons, but intelligent infrastructure is likely to have an impact on our society comparable to the establishment of the national electrical grid in the 1930s, the interstate highway system in the 1950s, and the Internet in the 1960s. Indeed, intelligent infrastructure can be viewed as the convergence of these three very powerful ideas.”

Matt Wansley, of the company nuTonomy, addressed issues of robustness and interoperability.

But the panel pointed out a rich set of research problems that require solving to truly realize the benefits of intelligent infrastructures along four foundational areas. Schulzrinne discussed the need for resiliency and adaptability in these sorts of systems, the ability of the infrastructure to cope with extreme or unexpected circumstances — for example, when wireless communications are subject to natural disasters on the scope of Hurricane Maria that devastated Puerto Rico. He noted the lessons we are learning from Maria — which knocked out 95 percent of all cell sites and many telephone switches — point to the need for more resilient communications infrastructures. “Research is needed to develop and prototype novel networking architectures that support a minimal level of communications, for example, using pre-deployed mesh and opportunistic solar-powered store-and-forward networks, for both first responders and the public. Self-configuring ‘autonomic’ networks can recover capabilities without the need for experts.”

Wansley added an industry perspective to the discussion, noting the importance of solving problems of robustness and interoperability to successful deployments of vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communications that would add tremendous value to communities with autonomous vehicles. V2I would not only enable autonomous cars to pull information from the existing infrastructure — the color of the traffic signal, the state of traffic ahead, the extent of construction zones on the route — but also push it back into the infrastructure for the benefit of all users. “Intelligent infrastructure is a textbook example of a positive externality,” he said. But getting there will require that the companies developing autonomous vehicles, and the consumers who ride in them, must be able to rely on the infrastructure — and that will require more fundamental work in the understanding how to build in robustness and interoperability in these system. This is work that’s perhaps best suited to university-led research fueled by Federal investment, he noted, as there are not sufficient market incentives for large corporations to make such V2I networks open and usable widely.

Nadya Bliss, of Arizona State University, addressed issues of security and trustworthiness.

This need for access and usability was amplified by Mynatt, who noted that ensuring the availability of open and curated data produced by these systems is key to communities benefitting from them (and not just industry). “Too often the data collected by these systems, whether it’s from smart trashcans that know they are full, to traffic data at intersections, is held by that company,” she said. “While municipalities may gain specific capabilities, such as knowing when to empty the trash, they lose the opportunities to use the data in new ways, ranging from informing real estate development to public health. Many of these ‘secondary uses’ of data are not in the bailiwick of technology companies but stand to make profound contributions to the quality of life in these communities.”

In addition to forward looking data platforms and policies to spur open innovation, Mynatt also discussed two other gaps that stand to prevent communities from reaping the economic rewards of infrastructure investments: productive access to broadband capabilities and innovating systems for effective training and job creation. She noted that broadband access in rural communities is often constrained by last mile problems, which might be met by combining wired and wireless connectivity. Similarly, meeting the needs of rural agriculture might require “flipping the cloud”, recognizing that agricultural users are not simply consumers of content, but potentially generate large volumes of data about their own farms, which might best be addressed by having more computation available to them on the “edges” of the internet nearest them, rather than pushed back up to some central cloud through a constrained pipe. These challenges also highlight the need to have a workforce trained to work with (and on) these new infrastructures.

Elizabeth Mynatt, of Georgia Tech, addresses the attendees of the Capitol Hill briefing.

Trustworthiness, security and privacy are challenges for just about any deployment of intelligent infrastructure, and Bliss discussed a number of potential approaches to meeting those challenges — like homomorphic encryption and differential privacy —  that are or will become viable with research. But she was emphatic that if policymakers take to heart only one thing from her talk, let it be “security can no longer be an afterthought.”

“Investment in intelligent infrastructure creates much opportunity for our nation,” she said. “As we build this new internet of useful things, we can build in security, trustworthiness, and privacy from the start. The cost of not doing so given the physical nature of these systems (vehicles, energy plants, bridges, roads) would just be too high.”

An attendee of the Congressional briefing poses a question to the panel.

Common across all the panelist’s presentations was a recognition that the infrastructure for handling, processing, and analyzing data is crucial. “At the same time, there is a tension between data privacy, integrity, and openness that we do not yet know how to navigate,” Lopresti said. “We need more research, and more infrastructure that enables that research, to solve these challenges.” He also noted that the nation is well-positioned to take on this research. Indeed, more than a dozen Federal agencies are already supporting work in these areas. These include NSF, NIST, the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Energy, and the Department of Transportation. “But also the Department of Defense, Health and Human Services, the US Geological Survey, and even the Census Bureau. Bolstering support for intelligent infrastructure research through these Federal funding agencies will reap enormous dividends.”

The briefing was well-attended and generated good discussion both in the question and answer period and in follow-up conversations with congressional staff. We’ll keep you apprised of developments as the Administration’s infrastructure proposal begins its march through the legislative process.

In the meantime, you can read the “one-pager” from the briefing, or check out some additional resources, including white papers produced by the computing community on various aspects of intelligent infrastructure research.

 

Shut down ends but will we be back here in February?


The word from Capitol Hill is that the Senate has reached a compromise to pass a continuing resolution (CR) until February 8th, ending the shut down and reopening the Federal Government. The agreement is that in exchange for funding governmental operations, the Democrats have been promised that an immigration bill will be allowed to reach the Senate floor. As of this writing, the Senate has passed the CR and the House is expected to quickly pass it as well.

While this is good news from a research perspective, it’s hard to see how these issues will be resolved in three weeks. There is still no budget caps agreement on defense vs non-defense spending levels (a major issue for defense hawks, who want large increases to defense spending, and for deficit hawks, who want to curtail government spending); and the prospects of an immigration bill being taken up by the House of Representatives are slim to none. The bottom line is, don’t be surprised if we go through this again in early February.

What’s Happening With the Federal Budget: Upgrading Shutdown Watch to a Shutdown Warning


For anyone who pays attention to the happenings of official Washington, it’s been an eventful week, even though it is just Wednesday. The week started with Congress coming back from the Thanksgiving break with an overflowing plate of issues to handle; the most significant being the slow moving tax overhaul effort and a quickly expiring continuing resolution (CR), on December 8th, that is keeping the Federal Government funded and operating. CRA has weighed in — along with five of the other leading computing organizations — on a provision in the House tax reform effort that would increase taxes on graduate students in the U.S., but we’re also paying close attention to the Federal budget endgame.

That endgame has started roughly. To start the negotiating, a meeting was set up between the President and Republican and Democrat Congressional leaders on Tuesday. However, President Trump upended those plans by tweeting that morning that he didn’t see a deal as being possible. Not unpredictably, the Democratic leaders pulled out of the meeting, saying there wasn’t much point working with the President if no deal was possible, so they would only work with Congressional Republicans. While chaos didn’t ensue, a lot of frustration, on both sides of the political aisle was vented that carefully laid negotiating plans were up-ended by the President.

Why did this happen? Congressional Republicans are deeply split on Federal spending between defense hawks, who want significant increases to defense spending, and budget hawks, who want deep cuts to Federal spending to reduce the deficit. The inability of these groups to come to an agreement on budget priorities forces Republican leaders to rely on earning some Democratic votes to pass any budget. This gives Democrats not just a seat at the table but a good amount of leverage in what any final bill looks like. The flip side is that President Trump seems to see political advantage in playing hardball with Congressional Democrats, believing that he can successfully blame Democrats for any government shutdown that could ensue if an agreement isn’t reached. With that in mind, President Trump’s tweet could just be a negotiating tactic — which is how the White House is spinning it.

However, Democrats have their own political calculations. There is a very real possibility that Democrats could pay a high political price from their supporters by negotiating with President Trump and possibly giving up too much. They have their own demands – for example, they believe any funding bill must also address the fate of the Dreamers – individuals who came to the U.S. as children and were granted a level of amnesty from immigration violations under the DREAM Act. The President’s tweet suggests that he’s not willing to negotiate on the Dreamers, which inches us much closer to shutdown.

So, is a government shutdown a foregone conclusion? Not necessarily, as there is still time for deals to get made. But a shutdown is a very real possibility. This situation will have to play out more before any answer becomes clear. However, for now, borrowing an idea from weather forecasting, we’d upgrade this shutdown watch to a shutdown warning.

Appropriations Update: FY 18 House and Senate Numbers for Defense Research


In our continuing series looking at the House and Senate appropriations moves for Fiscal Year 2018 (FY2018), we turn to the Defense Appropriations bills. Just before the Thanksgiving break, the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee released their version of the bill; the House had passed their version back at the end of 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 (DW) account. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is a section under the Defense Wide account.

It’s worth taking a step back and seeing what the President’s request for DOD S&T was back in May. As with other parts of the President Trump’s request for science accounts, it was not good for Defense Research. All three accounts, 6.1, 6.2, and 6.3, would have seen cuts, relative to what was passed in the Fiscal Year 2017 Omnibus, under the President’s plan; DARPA would have seen a healthy increase. This is striking given how central increased defense spending is to the President’s overall message, both on the campaign trail and since he has come into office. Here are the actual numbers in the President’s Budget Request (PBR):

FY17 Enacted FY18 PBR $ Change % Change
6.1 Basic Research $2.28B $2.23B -$48M -2.1%
6.2 Applied Research $5.30B $4.97B -$323M -6.1%
6.3 Advanced Technology Development $6.44B $6.00B -$442M -6.9%
DARPA $2.89B $3.17B +$281M +9.7%

The House numbers are only slightly improved from what the President requested. Under the House’s plan, 6.1 would be effectively flat funded (+0.1 percent), while both 6.2 and 6.3 would see cuts (-1 percent and -2.5 percent, respectfully). DARPA again comes out the winner (+6.3 percent), but not as good as under the President’s plan. All of these are relative to the FY2017 enacted budget. Here are the specific numbers:

FY17 Enacted FY18 House $ Change % Change
6.1 Basic Research $2.276B $2.279B +$3M +0.1%
6.2 Applied Research $5.30B $5.24B -$60M -1.0%
6.3 Advanced Technology Development $6.44B $6.28B -$120M -2.5%
DARPA $2.89B $3.07B +$180M +6.3%

Turning to the Senate numbers, the situation doesn’t improve. This time it’s applied research that gets the slight increase (+0.8 percent), while both basic research and advanced technology development gets cuts (-0.8 percent and -1.4 percent); DARPA, again, gets a healthy increase but it’s the smallest of any of the three plans (+4.9 percent). These numbers are especially surprising given that the Senate has traditionally been the protector of defense basic research and has seen to it that the account stays at a healthy level. Here are the specifics:

FY17 Enacted FY18 Senate $ Change % Change
6.1 Basic Research $2.276B $2.259B -$17M -0.8%
6.2 Applied Research $5.30B $5.34B +$40M +0.8%
6.3 Advanced Technology Development $6.44B $6.35B -$99M -1.4%
DARPA $2.89B $3.03B +$104M +4.9%

It’s hard to understand where these numbers, from either chamber of Congress, are coming from. Defense spending is seen in a positive light, most especially on the Republican side of the aisle, and the Pentagon is expected to get a general increase in funding. Why this rising tide isn’t benefiting defense S&T isn’t clear. There’s still a chance that things can improve when the bills are reconciled in conference, especially if a deal is reached to increase the budget caps. However, it is a heavy lift when both chamber’s plans call for flat funding or cuts.

The Senate only marked up their bill in the subcommittee last week. It’s unlikely to progress beyond that in the Senate, as the continuing resolution (CR) that is keeping the Federal Government funded runs out on December 8th and a larger deal on funding is likely to be made (or not). The CR is likely to be extended to at least the week before Christmas, with no guarantee about when a final decision on Fiscal Year 2018 will be decided; we’ve already heard rumblings that it could be kicked to early next calendar year. The short answer is we have to wait to see how this plays out. Keep checking back for more updates.

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