The Future of Computer Science Research in the U.S., Part 1a

In lieu of a proper update about the hearing (coming, I promise), here’s CRA’s press release:

Computing Researchers Tell Congress US IT Dominance at Risk
Washington, DC, May 12, 2005 – Computing researchers today told a receptive congressional panel that the nation’s dominant leadership position in information technology is at risk from cuts in research funding and changes in focus at federal mission agencies. The Computing Research Association, in written testimony endorsed by five other computing-related organizations, told the committee that the changing landscape for federal support of computing research threatens to derail the “extraordinarily productive” research enterprise that has enabled the innovation that drives the new economy.
“The impact of IT research on enabling of innovation resonates far beyond just the IT sector,” said James D. Foley, Chair of CRA and professor of computer science at Georgia Institute of Technology. “IT has played an essential – many argue the essential – role in the economic growth of the US in the past 20 years. In fact, the seeds of this economic growth are in the fundamental discoveries, most of which are pre-competitive and occur in the nation’s universities and research laboratories,” said Foley.
The joint testimony notes a number of factors that imperil U.S. long-term leadership in IT, including DARPA’s withdrawal from its historical support of university-based computer science research and cuts to the proposed IT research budgets at NIST, NASA, the Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health. “These changes appear to indicate that the national commitment to fundamental research in IT has waned,” Foley said.
Committee members shared the research community’s concerns. Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) noted the importance of IT and acknowledged that problems were evident. “Current federal funding is not properly balanced,” Boehlert said. “It does not adequately continue our historic commitment to longer-range, more basic research in computer science, and it does not focus sufficiently on cybersecurity.”
“This is not a matter of questioning the policy or budget of any single agency,” he said. “This is a matter of having a critical, high-profile national need that is not being addressed by an overall, coordinated federal policy or by overall federal spending.”
Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-TN), the panel’s ranking Democrat, agreed. “We cannot afford to squander our technological edge in a field that will only grow in importance.”
In his testimony, DARPA director Tony Tether suggested computer scientists might be to blame for failing to identify specific research that is currently underfunded.
“This is, frankly, a shocking assertion,” Foley said. “The National Science Foundation’s computer and information science directorate is currently awash in proposals it finds meritorious, but unable to grant due to funding constraints. The President’s IT Advisory Committee report on Cyber Security R&D lists 10 areas of research need that are currently inadequately funded. The CRA Grand Research Challenges conferences recommended dozens of specific research areas tuned to address long-term problems in computing. And finally, the Pentagon’s own Defense Science Board Task Force on High Performance Microprocessors concluded in February 2005 that there were fundamental research areas in that area that were no longer being addressed.”
The computing research community testimony concluded with a call for the U.S. to maintain leadership in IT. “The U.S. still has the world’s strongest capability in fundamental research in IT, and the most experience in how to leverage that capability towards economic growth,” Foley said. But there are risks in letting uncertainty about funding that research linger.
“We taught the rest of the world how to grow from such investment,” Foley said, “and they learned the lesson well. Those other countries are now ramping up their investment in basic research and higher education in computing while support in the US is declining. The US cannot long maintain the lead in such an environment”
A copy of the computing research community statement may be found here (pdf, 1.6 megs)
For more on the current state of IT R&D:
Organizations endorsing the testimony: the American Society for Information Science and Technology (ASIS&T), Coalition for Academic Scientific Computation (CASC), Computing Research Association (CRA), Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Heads Association (ECEDHA), Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), and the US Public Policy Committee of the Association for Computing Machinery.
About CRA: The Computing Research Association (CRA) is an association of more than 200 North American academic departments of computer science, computer engineering, and related fields; laboratories and centers in industry, government, and academia engaging in basic computing research; and affiliated professional societies.
CRA’s mission is to strengthen research and advanced education in the computing fields, expand opportunities for women and minorities, and improve public and policymaker understanding of the importance of computing and computing research in our society.


Update: Science Committee Chairman Boehlert has issued an interesting (and slightly unusual) press release following the hearing. It seems as though Boehlert is bothered by the concerns raised by the community and perhaps more bothered that Tether’s answers today never really addressed them head on. But Tether did issue a challenge for computer scientists to identify research being neglected. “I see a lot of hand-wringing,” Tether said, “but I never get an answer to the question of what we’re not doing.” So Boehlert is using that challenge as a hook to keep the committee involved in the issue — he says he wants the committee to act as an honest broker. I’m not sure I can think of a better outcome from this particular hearing….
Anyway, here’s the release.

May 12, 2005
Contact: Joe Pouliot, 202-225-0581
Boehlert Plans Continued Efforts to Ensure Long-term Research Needs
are Adequately Addressed
WASHINGTON, D.C. – At a Science Committee hearing today on t he future of computer science in the U.S., Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) expressed concern that federal funding of computer science is shifting away from fundamental, long-term research, potentially damaging the future of the U.S. information technology industry and the economy as a whole.
Boehlert and the non-governmental witnesses particularly expressed concern about the balance between short- and long-term research at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).  DARPA’s  director, Dr. Anthony Tether, defended the agency at the hearing.  Tether challenged DARPA’s critics to be specific about what areas of research they thought DARPA was neglecting, and Boehlert asked the two critics who were also testifying to respond to that challenge in writing to both Tether and the Science Committee.  The two critics were Dr. William Wulf, a computer scientist who heads the National Academy of Engineering, and Dr. Tom Leighton, Chief Scientist and co-founder of Akamai Technologies.  Leighton also serves on the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC), although he was not representing PITAC at the hearing.
After the hearing, Boehlert said the hearing was just the first step in addressing concerns that computer scientists have raised about DARPA’s research priorities.  “We had a vigorous discussion today that I want to see continue.  I want the Science Committee to be an honest broker that can bring together DARPA and its critics to help Congress and the Administration create a computer science funding policy that will address the nation’s future and current needs.  We will continue to pursue this issue.  Dr. Tether offered important information about DARPA’s programs that now needs to be reviewed and responded to by the academic community.  I remain concerned about the direction of federal computing policy, but this is a tough issue – a question of balance – and we’re going to need a lot more discussion and debate to sort things out.  I hope our efforts will be of use to DARPA and the entire Administration and the Congress in allaying concerns and in forging the appropriate policy.”
In his opening statement, Boehlert said, “We cannot have a situation where university researchers can point to sharp declines in DARPA funding, reviews of research results that reflect telescoped time horizons, and increased classification.  We cannot have a situation where proposal approval rates at the National Science Foundation drop by half in just a few years.  We cannot have a situation where a Presidential advisory council declares that our information technology infrastructure is ‘highly vulnerable’ and that there is ‘relatively little support for fundamental research to address the larger security vulnerabilities.’  We cannot have a situation where a Pentagon advisory board similarly expresses deep concern over the lack of long-term computing research.”
Boehlert asked the other witness at the hearing, Dr. John Marburger, the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, if the President was going to recharter PITAC.  PITAC was established by statute, but it operates pursuant to an Executive Order that is about to expire.  Marburger said the matter was under review.  Boehlert has urged that PITAC be rechartered.
House Science Committee Press Office — 2320 Rayburn Building — Washington, DC 20515
202-225-4275 (phone), 202-225-3170 (fax)

The Future of Computer Science Research in the U.S., Part 1a