Congress Prepares Computing Research Authorization Bill
The House Science Committee is circulating a draft (pdf) of a bill to amend portions of the High Performance Computing Act of 1991 to address issues about coordination among federal agencies doing IT R&D. This is an important bill for a couple of reasons. First, the original HPC Act — besides being the bill sponsored by then Senator Al Gore that was the reason behind to the infamous “I took the initiative in creating the Internet” line from the 2000 presidential campaign — established the current structure for the now $2.0 billion a year federal investment in IT R&D and has done much to shape the discipline and the enormous amount innovation that has resulted…innovation that, in turn, has driven the new economy. So any alteration of the bill bears the weight of all of that success.
Second, the new bill is important for the message it sends. At a time when the overall budget for federal IT R&D has been basically flat (some agencies up, other down) for several years (graph) and when the Director of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy has defended the flat budgets by claiming IT is a “mature” field, without the same complexity as the life sciences, it’s important to have Congress note that IT R&D is still vital to the nation for a whole host of reasons and is rich with challenges to solve.
The bill is also important because it attempts to address concerns within the computing community about interagency coordination in the NITRD program generally, and specifically within the high-performance computing community. If there’s one important point to take away from the Atkins Cyberinfrastructure Report, it’s that the cyberinfrastructure revolution is already underway. Agencies are already planning their own cyberinfrastructure strategies — NSF has reorganized and created a division of Shared Cyberinfrastructure, DOE has it’s own plan, NIH is considering its own health sciences network, NASA is considering its own geosciences network. It’s not clear, however, that there’s a whole lot of coordination going on between the agencies, despite the NITRD interagency coordination plan already in place. While a diversity of funding agencies is probably desirable in this space, coordination between the agencies can help insure that funding is spent in the most effective ways possible. The Science Committee bill addresses this by requiring the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC) review the NITRD coordination effort every two years and report to the President and Congress.
The bill also amends the HPC to direct the agencies under the Science Committee’s jurisdiction (NSF, NASA, DOE, NIST, NOAA, and EPA) to do a number of things consistent with their missions. You can see the complete list of responsibilities by looking at this section by section analysis of the bill (provided by the Committee staff). The Committee also provided this short-form summary of the bill’s intent:
Assuring U.S. Researchers Access to the Most Advanced High-Performance Computing Systems Available: the bill requires the High-Performance Computing Research and Development Program to “provide sustained access by the research community in the United States to high-performance computing systems that are among the most advanced in the world in terms of performance in solving scientific and engineering problems, including provision for technical support for users of such systems. The bill also specifically requires the National Science Foundation and the Office of Science at the Department of Energy to provide U.S. researchers with access to “world class” high-performance computing systems.
Assuring Balanced Progress on All Aspects of High-Performance Computing: in addition to assuring U.S. leadership in hardware infrastructure, the bill requires the program to support all aspects of high-performance computing for scientific and engineering applications, including software, algorithm and applications development, development of technical standards, development of new computer models for science and engineering problem solving, and education and training in all the disciplines that support advanced computing.
Assuring an Adequate Interagency Planning Process to Maintain Continued U.S. Leadership: the bill requires the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy to “develop and maintain a research, development, and deployment roadmap for the provision of high-performance computing systems for use by the research community in the United States.” This and other provisions in the bill are designed to ensure a robust ongoing planning and coordination process so that our national high-performance computing effort is not allowed to lag in the future.
The only negative that I can see with the bill is the lack of authorization funding amounts. The committee doesn’t set out any recommended funding levels for any of the agencies within the bill. This is largely, I think, a political necessity to avoid the difficulties that authorization bills with large funding levels encounter in the legislative process. The previous attempt to authorize NITRD programs (HR 3400, introduced by Research Subcommittee chair Nick Smith (R-MI)) failed to receive floor consideration in the 107th Congress because the House Leadership — already worried about a growing deficit — balked at the funding levels authorized in the bill.
Failing to include the numbers is a disappointment, mainly because having a set of authorized funding levels gives the community a useful target to use in advocated for appropriations from year to year. It’s also important symbolically, as an expression of the strength of support for the programs in Congress. However, not having any funding recommendations will likely make the bill sail through the legislative process.
CRA is interested in your feedback on the bill. Please give it a look and add your comment. The Committee plans to hold a hearing on the bill on April 29. Scheduled to testify are: OSTP Director John Marburger; Bill Bishop, CEO of SGI; Rick Stevens, from Argonne National Labs; and Dan Reed, CRA Board Member and University of North Carolina. The bill is on a fast track — the committee plans to mark it up and pass it out the following week.