White House Offers Strong Show of Support for PCAST IT R&D Findings

The Nation’s CTO and CIO joined other key White House advisors at a briefing today to announce the release of the President’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology (PCAST) report on the state of federal IT research and development and offered a strong words of support for the role of information technology in driving the economy, enabling the sciences and accelerating the pace of discovery, and addressing national priorities.

The final PCAST report, “Designing a Digital Future,” appears essentially unchanged from the report presented to the committee last month and which we’ve detailed previously. The committee reviewed $4 billion, 14-agency Networking and Information Technology and Research and Development (NITRD) program and found that while it handles coordination of the agency programs “very successfully,” it’s not particularly effective at providing vision or strategic leadership for the federal effort. Among its recommendations, PCAST calls for the creation of a new standing committee, housed in some unspecified place in the Administrative branch and comprised of experts in IT from academia and industry, to help guide NITRD and provide strategic advice for the program. PCAST also found that current budget reporting mechanisms in use by NITRD don’t accurately detail the federal investment in IT R&D. As we noted in that previous post, much of what gets reported by participating NITRD agencies as “IT R&D” is actually “IT that’s used in R&D in other fields,” a fact which leads to a substantial overstatement of the true federal investment in IT research. A review of NIH’s investment, for example, found that of the over $1 billion the NIH reported to NITRD as IT R&D for FY09, only 2 to 11 percent of it could actually be described as true IT research. The rest was more accurately described as IT infrastructure used to support research in other fields.

PCAST’s report also recommends significant new investments in research areas that will advance national priorities — like health, energy, transportation and education — as well as research aimed at advancing specific research frontiers in IT. Our colleague Erwin Gianchandani has a detailed look at some of the research areas recommended by PCAST over at the CCC blog.

One other interesting recommendation – in light of the recent news of a Chinese supercomputer heading the list of the world’s fastest – is the panel’s call for the U.S. to abandon the competition to stay atop the Top500 rankings based on FLOPS (floating point operations per second). Calling it “an arms race we don’t really find beneficial,” PCAST member David Shaw derided FLOPS as a metric for high-performance computing. Shaw and PCAST NITRD Working Group Co-Chair Ed Lazowska (who also Chairs CRA’s Computing Community Consortium) both noted the finishing at the top of the Top500 is exceptionally expensive and doesn’t necessarily guarantee you’ll build a machine that’s particularly useful. Far more valuable a priority, Shaw noted, is to invest in research that could allow for a leap-frog of current high-performance computing technology. “We need to make sure we don’t allow procurement to crowd out research funding,” he said.

Administration Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra ran the lively briefing, calling on fellow advisors Vivek Kundra, the administration’s Chief Information Officer; Phil Weiser, Senior Advisor for Technology and Innovation to the National Economic Council Director; and Tom Kalil, Deputy Director for Policy of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, to testify to the impact of IT on government, on the U.S. economy, and on making progress on national priorities like energy, transportation, health and national security.

Kalil summed up the Administration’s position on why IT R&D is so important with four succinct points:

  • The IT revolution is far from over — there are many core challenges in computing still to addressed that have the potential to revolutionize further our economy, our standard of living, our national defense;
  • Information and communication technologies (ICT) are accelerating the pace of discovery in more and more disciplines; in fact, some disciplines like astronomy are becoming information-based fields;
  • ICT has had and continues to have a huge impact on our economy – a point discussant Robert Atkinson of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation amplified later in the briefing, noting that ITIF research showed that IT’s contribution to the U.S. economy is worth $2 trillion annually, and that IT jobs between 1999-2008 grew 4 times faster than non-IT jobs;
  • And, ICT has a role in every one of our national priorities, including health, education, energy, transportation, open government.

Kalil also noted the reasons why it’s important the federal government continues to invest substantially in IT research. The payoff from the federal investment in IT research historically has been dramatic – every billion-dollar subsector of the IT economy bears the stamp of federal support for research. Investment in basic research isn’t attractive to industry for a host of different reasons, not the least of which being that because of the nature of fundamental research, it’s nearly impossible for firms to capture all the benefit from their research investment. He also pointed out that many areas of IT research are critical to the missions of government agencies. And he noted that an investments in university research not only often produce good ideas, but just as importantly, they produce people – the next generation of scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs who will power our future.

In all, the briefing was a great showcase for the esteem in which the Administration holds IT research and its contributions to the nation. As federal budgets tighten, its crucial that U.S. policymakers understand that there are areas in which the U.S. must be allowed to maintain its science leadership, and it appears that the message that IT is one of those areas has gotten through to PCAST and to the White House.

The briefing is available as a webcast and well worth watching. The two “independent” discussants on the panel – Atkinson and Tom Leighton, founder of Akamai Technologies – are particularly worth a look (towards the last third of the broadcast).

In the coming year, we’ll keep an eye on how the recommendations of the committee fare and have all the details here.

White House Offers Strong Show of Support for PCAST IT R&D Findings