PITAC Allowed to Expire
After two productive years in which they produced three important reports on various aspects of the federal IT R&D portfolio, the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC) ceased to be on June 1st after the President’s executive order establishing the most recent committee expired and the committee member’s terms were not renewed. The committee had completed three reports requested by the Administration — on IT in the health care sector (pdf), cyber security R&D (pdf), and the state of computational science (pdf) — and appeared ready to take what they had learned in that process and apply it to a review of the overall federal IT R&D portfolio when their charter lapsed. Despite prodding from a number of different sources, including questions at a recent hearing by House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) to the Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, John Marburger, the President opted to allow the review to stop and the committee memberships to expire.
This is very disappointing for the computing research community, which endured two years after President Bush was elected in which the statutorily-madated committee was chartered but was without members (the President didn’t name the most recent PITAC members until May 28, 2003). PITAC performs an important cross-check on the federal Networking and Information Technology R&D program — the overall federal IT R&D program — serving as a largely independent review of the interagency planning process. The most recent PITAC was directed to review slivers of that process and in doing so, learned that the federal IT R&D landscape had changed considerably since the last “full” review of the program by the last PITAC in 1999.
At the last full meeting of the most recent committee, there appeared to be consensus among the members that because work on the three reports requested by the President was then complete, it was time to turn the committee’s attention to the full portfolio, executing their statutory obligation to assess the overall federal investment in IT R&D and applying the lessons they’d learned in the process of completing the three requested reports. The last report on the overall portfolio, the ’99 PITAC report Investing in Our Future, found that the nation was considerably underinvested in IT R&D given the “spectacular” return on the federal investment in long-term IT R&D. That committee’s recommendations included specific funding levels for the program through FY 2004 — funding levels that the federal government has never met (the FY 2006 budget request is still $527 million short of the PITAC recommendation for FY 04).
There is undoubtedly concern within the Administration whether a new review of the overall IT R&D portfolio would find similar problems with the current federal effort, perhaps recommending funding increases that would prove politically challenging in the current budget environment. But as we’ve noted here frequently, the federal landscape for computing research has changed dramatically since that last review — agencies that have typically been strong supporters of university computing research have significantly curtailed that research, other agencies have stepped up their investments considerably, policy changes at agencies across the board have affected the character of the research that’s funded. The most recent PITAC reports show the evidence of all of those changes. It not only makes sense for PITAC to undertake a review of the overall portfolio, it is, in fact, what PITAC was chartered by Congress (in the original 1991 High Performance Computing Act) to do. This point is emphasized in the High Performance Computing Authorization Act of 2005, already approved by the House, which would require that PITAC undertake such a review every two years.
So, I hope that the President acts quickly to either re-charter the committee and reinstate the current members (who have climbed a steep learning curve in learning about the intricacies of federal IT R&D portfolio) or to move swiftly to name new members of equal stature to the committee to undertake the review of the overall effort that’s sorely needed. As Congress continues to demonstrate its concern with the current state of computer science research in the U.S., the one advisory body most well-suited to the task of assessing that state shouldn’t be allowed to lapse.