Science OpEd: An Endless Frontier Postponed

Edward Lazowska and David Patterson (both former CRA board members and current members of the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee) have penned an excellent OpEd (sub. req’d) in this week’s issue of Science magazine on the impact of the changing federal landscape for support of computing research. The OpEd makes a case that will be familiar to readers of this blog: the unique environment responsible for the IT innovations that drive much of the new economy is at risk by recent shifts within the federal IT R&D portfolio.

U.S. IT research grew largely under DARPA and the National Science Foundation (NSF). NSF relied on peer review, whereas DARPA bet on vision and reputation, complementary approaches that served the nation well. Over the past 4 decades, the resulting research has laid the foundation for the modern microprocessor, the Internet, the graphical user interface, and single-user workstations. It has also launched new fields such as computational science. Virtually every aspect of IT that we rely on today bears the stamp of federally sponsored research. A 2003 National Academies study provided 19 examples where such work ultimately led to billion-dollar industries, an economic benefit that reaffirms science advisor Vannevar Bush’s 1945 vision in Science: The Endless Frontier.
However, in the past 3 years, DARPA funding for IT research at universities has dropped by nearly half. Policy changes at the agency, including increased classification of research programs, increased restrictions on the participation of noncitizens, and “go/no-go” reviews applied to research at 12- to 18-month intervals, discourage participation by university researchers and signal a shift from pushing the leading edge to “bridging the gap” between fundamental research and deployable technologies. In essence, NSF is now relied on to support the long-term research needed to advance the IT field.
Other agencies have not stepped in. The Defense Science Board noted in a recent look at microchip research at the Department of Defense (DOD): “[DARPA’s] withdrawal has created a vacuum . . . The problem, for DOD, the IT industry, and the nation as a whole, is that no effective leadership structure has been substituted.” The Department of Homeland Security, according to a recent report from the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee, spends less than 2% of its Science and Technology budget on cybersecurity, and only a small fraction of that on research. NASA is downsizing computational science, and IT research budgets at the Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health are slated for cuts in the president’s fiscal year 2006 budget.

The OpEd’s conclusion is stark:

At a time when global competitors are gaining the capacity and commitment to challenge U.S. high-tech leadership, this changed landscape threatens to derail the extraordinarily productive interplay of academia, government, and industry in IT. Given the importance of IT in enabling the new economy and in opening new areas of scientific discovery, we simply cannot afford to cede leadership. Where will the next generation of groundbreaking innovations in IT arise? Where will the Turing Awardees 30 years hence reside? Given current trends, the answers to both questions will likely be, “not in the United States.”

As I mentioned previously, the piece contains a link to the a page here at CRA HQ that’s sort of a one-stop shop for information relating to IT R&D policy. Ed has also placed a link to a pdf version of the article on his website.
The OpEd appears in an issue of Science devoted to distributed computing issues, with articles on Grassroots Supercomputing, Grid Sport: Competitive Crunching, Data-Bots Charting the Internet, Service-Oriented Science, and more. The timing of the issue also couldn’t be better, given the the House Science Committee will hold a full committee hearing on “The Future of Computer Science Research in the U.S.” on Thursday, May 12th. You can catch the details here, or watch it live on the Science Committee’s real-time webcast (also archived).
And keep an eye out for future editorials….

Science OpEd: An Endless Frontier Postponed