Computing R&D in the President’s Budget Request

CRA annually contributes a chapter to the AAAS R&D Budget book. Our chapter, which is below, focuses on the policy issues surrounding computing and the NITRD budget cross-cut. The entire book is available at AAAS R&D site next week.


  • Funding for the Networking and Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) program would increase 1.9 percent, to $3.87 billion, in the President’s FY 2012 Budget Request versus the FY 2010 level.
  • The President’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology reviewed the NITRD program in 2010 and determined that the $3.79 billion reported for FY 2010 probably significantly overstates the federal investment in IT research due to investments in technology misclassified by agencies as research.
  • The National Science Foundation (NSF), the primary supporter of university-led computer science research in the United States, would see its share of the NITRD program increase $152 million to $1.26 billion, or 13.8 percent, in FY 2012 under the President’s request.

    The importance of computing research in enabling the new economy is well documented. The resulting advances in information technology have led to significant improvements in product design, development and distribution for American industry, provided instant communications for people worldwide, and enabled new scientific disciplines like bioinformatics and nanotechnology.

    Information technology has also changed the conduct of research. Innovations in computing and networking technologies are enabling scientific discovery across every scientific discipline – from mapping the human brain to modeling climatic change. Researchers, faced with research problems that are ever more complex and interdisciplinary in nature, are using IT to collaborate across the globe, simulate experiments, visualize large and complex datasets, and collect and manage massive amounts of data.

    As of FY 2010, the Federal IT R&D effort is now a $3.8 billion multi-agency enterprise called the Networking and Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) program and coordinated by the Interagency Working Group (IWG) on Information Technology Research and Development of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC). NITRD is the successor of the High Performance Computing and Communications Program established by Congress in 1991. NITRD agencies now coordinate research in eight Program Component Areas (PCAs): High End Computing Infrastructure and Applications; High End Computing Research and Development; Human Computer Interaction and Information Management (HCI&IM); Large Scale Networking (LSN); Software Design and Productivity; High Confidence Software and Systems (HCSS); Social, Economic, and Workforce Implications of IT; and Cyber Security and Information Assurance (CSIA). The NSF is the lead agency out of 13 member agencies in NITRD. Additionally, NITRD intends to formally recognize the Department of Homeland Security as a member agency this year after several years as a participating agency.


    The most notable change in the policy environment for federal investments in computing research was the release in December 2010 of a PCAST review of the NITRD program. The review, Designing a Digital Future: Federally Funded Research and Development in Networking and Information Technology, concluded that federal investments in computing research have yielded enormous benefits for the Nation’s economic competitiveness, national security, and quality of life. The panel found that advances in computing research are crucial to achieving major national and global priorities in energy and transportation, education and life-long learning, healthcare, and national and homeland security.

    The committee also found that the federal government’s investment in IT research and development – the $3.8 billion figure released by the NITRD coordinating office and cited here – may be overstated by a significant margin. While the committee expressed some confidence in the investment levels cited by NSF and DARPA, they found that NIH, an agency reporting one of the largest shares of NITRD investment, was likely investing far less in actual IT research than the numbers would suggest. The committee reviewed the top 100 awards in NIH’s NITRD portfolio – totaling nearly $600 million, nearly half of NIH’s NITRD crosscut total – and concluded that only between 2 percent and 11 percent (by dollar value) should be considered IT R&D. The remainder, the committee found, was spent on “various forms of NIT infrastructure that provide essential support for biomedical research, but not on NIT R&D.”

    Given this apparent under investment in IT research, one of the key recommendations of the report is to immediately increase the overall NITRD investment in IT research by $1 billion per year – some of which may be achieved by redirecting NITRD funds currently being used for activities other than research and development. The committee also noted the need to prioritize research in particular areas, including large-scale data analysis, the development of robotic sensors, novel approaches to more robustly protecting our nation’s cyber infrastructure, and making human-computer interactions more seamless.

    In the High Performance Computing space, the committee recommended the federal government rely less on certain metrics, like the popular Top 500 ranking of supercomputers worldwide, that capture only some of the capabilities that are relevant to current priorities. An over-reliance on these metrics, the committee concluded, can lead to “disproportionate expenditures for the procurement of supercomputers” and displace “the fundamental research that will be required to develop ‘game-changing’ future-generation HPC technologies.”

    Finally, the committee noted that the NITRD program is well run by its working group and coordinating office, but that the program is chartered and staffed to coordinate multi-agency programs, and not develop long-term strategies. To handle this strategic role, the committee recommends the creation of a standing committee of IT experts “to provide the NITRD program with strategic vision and leadership.”

    Whether any of the PCAST recommendations will find their way into legislation this session remains to be seen. An obvious vehicle would be a NITRD reauthorization act, such as ones that have failed to pass in the last two Congresses. While there is some interest in both chambers for such a measure, it is unclear whether there exists the consensus on what that bill should contain that would be necessary for final passage. In the absence of consensus, it appears neither chamber may have an appetite for moving ahead with a reauthorization this year.


    Nine agencies included requests for FY 2012 funding as part of the NITRD activity. Under the President’s plan, NSF would once again be designated the lead agency for the initiative. For FY 2012, the President has requested $3.87 billion for the NITRD initiative.

    National Science Foundation. The National Science Foundation would spend $1.26 billion on NITRD-related research in FY 2012, an increase of $152 million, or 13.8 percent, over its FY 2010 actual level.

    The locus of NSF’s NITRD activity is the Foundation’s Computing and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) directorate, which would account for $728 million of NSF’s NITRD-related funding in FY 2012, an increase of $110 million (or 17.7 percent) over the FY 2010 level.

    Under the President’s plan, CISE would be the lead agency in a new National Robotics Initiative, with the directorate contributing $17 million to the $30 million Foundation-wide amount. Also participating in the NRI are NASA, NIH, and USDA. Cyber Physical Systems would also be led by CISE with the directorate contributing $35 million of the Foundation-wide $44 million. Additionally, CISE would also contribute $16 million to the NSF-wide $117 million for the Cyberinfrastructure Framework for the 21st Century program.

    NSF’s Office of Cyberinfrastructure (OCI) would also see an increase in the President’s budget for FY 2012. Under the Administration’s plan, the office would grow 9.9 percent over FY 2010 to $236 million.

    Department of Defense. Overall funding for IT RD at the Department of Defense agencies would once again decrease significantly in FY 2012 compared to FY 2010, with cuts of $96.1 million for NSA (or 61.7 percent), bringing its budget to $59.7 million; a $114.2 million reduction (18.2 percent) for the service agencies and OSD, bringing their collective budget to $511.8 million; and $50.8 million reduction (9.6 percent) at the Defense Research Projects Agency (DARPA), bringing its budget to $480.2 million under the President’s plan. The planned decrease at DARPA is largely due to a decrease in the HEC R&D, HCI&IM, and LSN program component areas. The NSA decrease is the removal of Congressionally mandated spending and the end of the DARPA HPCS program.

    Health and Human Services (HHS). The National Institutes of Health (NIH) constitutes the bulk of funding in IT R&D at HHS. For FY 2012, the President’s plan includes $653 million in IT R&D funding at HHS, an increase of $7 million compared to FY 2010.

    Department of Energy. IT R&D activities in DOE’s Office of Science (DOE SC), National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), and the Office of Nuclear Energy constitute DOE’s participation in NITRD. Under the President’s plan DOE’s non-NNSA NITRD funding would be $529.9 million, an increase of 26.6 percent, or $111.5 million, from FY 2010. NNSA would see a decrease of $3.9 million in NITRD-related funding to $25.9 million for FY 2012.

    The DOE SC’s Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR) program constitutes the majority of the department’s participation in NITRD. For FY 2012, ASCR requested $465.6 million, up 21.5 percent from FY 2010. ASCR’s mission is to underpin and enable the efforts of programs within the DOE SC, as well as “to provide the high-performance computational and networking resources that are required for world leadership in science.” The DOE also requested increases in funding for Mathematical, Computational, and Computer Science research ($174 million) and for HPC and Network Facilities ($291.6 million).

    Department of Commerce (DOC). The DOC request for FY 2012 contains NITRD-related funding requests from two agencies: NOAA and NIST. NIST IT R&D efforts include working with industry, educational, and government organizations to make IT systems more useable, secure, scalable, and interoperable. In addition, NIST works to apply IT to specialized areas like biotechnology and manufacturing, and to encourage industry to accelerate development of IT innovations. The President’s request includes $133.9 million for NIST IT R&D in FY 2012, an increase of $52.9 million over FY 2010. The increase is for NIST’s Ensuring a Secure and Robust Cyber Infrastructure program.

    NOAA supports IT research in emerging computer technologies for improved climate modeling and weather forecasting, and for improved communications technologies to disseminate weather products and warnings to emergency responders, policymakers, and the general public. The President’s request includes $26.3 million for NOAA IT R&D in FY 2012, flat funding compared to FY 2010.

    Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). EPA IT R&D would receive $5.9 million in FY 2012 under the President’s plan, a decrease of $400 thousand from FY 2010. EPA uses its IT funding to support technologies that facilitate ecosystem modeling, risk assessment, and environmental decision making at the federal, state, and local levels.

    National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). NARA research focuses on the management and preservation of electronic records and fosters the development of advanced technologies for the management of electronic records for the current and future operations needs of government. For IT R&D, the agency requests $2.5 million, $2 million less than it received in FY 2010.

    Department of Homeland Security (DHS). DHS was included in the NITRD crosscut as a member agency for the first time in FY 2012. The President requested $57.1 million in IT R&D funding for DHS, compared to $49.9 million the agency reported spending in FY 2010. As might be expected, the bulk of that spending – $41.0 million – will be in the Cyber Security and Information Assurance space.

    National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). NASA requested $94.7 million in the FY 2012 budget, an increase of $9.4 million, or 11.0 percent, from FY 2010.

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    Computing R&D in the President’s Budget Request