PCAST Calls for More Investment in IT, Advisory Committee, and Better IT Spending Figures

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) today approved a draft review of the federal government’s Networking and Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) program in which they call for significant new investment in federal IT research support, the establishment of a standing committee of networking and IT specialists to oversee the federal effort, and the establishment of a new, publicly-accessible, detailed database on federal IT research spending.

PCAST’s congressionally-mandated review of the 14 agency, $4 billion a year NITRD program, found the program “hugely successful” at enabling discovery at all fields of science and driving innovation and economic competitiveness, according to Ed Lazowska, who co-chaired a 14 person subcommittee of IT experts who assisted with the report. (Lazowska is a professor at the University of Washington and also chairs CRA’s Computing Community Consortium). However, the review found several issues with the current NITRD program.

While there are several agencies that clearly understand the importance of fundamental computing research to their agency missions — Lazowska cited the Department of Defense as one that definitely grasped how IT figures in to a great number of the agency’s desired “critical capabilities” — many others still don’t. Some of this can be seen in the way agencies report their IT research spending levels, mistaking investments in IT infrastructure as investments in IT research. A review by the subcommittee of the funding levels for “IT research” reported by the National Institutes of Health ($1.2 billion in FY 10), for example, showed that true IT research accounted for only 2 – 11 percent of the total. And NIH isn’t alone. “The NITRD [budget] crosscut significantly overstates the total federal investment,” Lazowska said.

The review also found that while the National Coordination Office for IT, the “home” of NITRD, does a good job of handling the coordination of all the various agency efforts, there’s very little emphasis on providing vision or leadership for the program. The PCAST report calls for the establishment of a “standing committee” composed of experts in IT to help guide the program — to identify new areas of research and to oversee the current programs. This sounds very much like the former President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC), which was disbanded under President Bush and whose responsibilities were given to PCAST.

The draft PCAST report also apparently calls for the establishment of a new database that would be highly detailed and publicly accessible that tracked federal investments in IT research across agencies. The creation of such a database, Shaw said, would avoid misclassification in the budget crosscut and provide policymakers with better information, as well as allow researchers a better understanding of the different opportunities and problems faced by the various mission agencies.

The report also calls for new IT research initiatives in three key areas of priority: health care, energy and transportation, and cyberinfrastructure. The committee didn’t release details on the extent of the new initiatives, however. The report calls out the need for new research in high performance computing (and recommends getting away from using FLOPs as a metric for success), privacy and confidentiality, human-computer interactions, large scale data analytics, and cyber physical systems.

The committee approved the draft report by unanimous voice vote. Lazowska and his committee still need to make final edits to the report before its release by PCAST.

PCAST members today also heard a number of reports on issues of broader interest to the science and engineering community. National Academy of Engineering President Chuck Vest summarized the recent release of the Academy’s update to the Rising Above the Gathering Storm report, noting that, despite some progress, America’s global competitiveness is even more at risk than it was when they released the original report.

Al Shaffer, Deputy Director of the DOD Defense Research and Engineering office, told the committee that basic research at DOD is healthier than its been in many years, noting that 6.1 funding is up over 18 percent since FY 2008. However, Michael Gregg, a member of the JASONs advisory committee for DOD contradicted that conclusion somewhat by summarizing a recent report by the committee that found much of DOD’s 6.1 efforts broken — significant basic research funding actually supports applied research, the work is good but incremental, and the common management of 6.1-6.3 research is bad practice. We’ll have more coverage of the DOD research issues, and whether things have changed for the better in computer science research at DOD, in a future blog post.

We’ll also have all the details of PCAST’s review of NITRD once its finalized and released. For now, you can watch a webcast of the meeting archived here.

Update: Ed Lazowska has put together a summary of his remarks (pdf) from the meeting.

PCAST Calls for More Investment in IT, Advisory Committee, and Better IT Spending Figures