Computing Community Takes Case to Hill

It was a busy day on Capitol Hill yesterday for members of the computing research community as they worked to make the case to Congress of the importance of the federal investment in research from a couple of different angles. From one direction, a panel of current and former CRA board members joined the head of the National Coordinating Office for IT R&D (George Strawn) at a hearing of the Research and Science Education subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee to comment on the adequacy of the federal effort in IT research. CRA’s Computing Community Consortium Chair (and University of Washington CS professor) Edward Lazowska, current CCC council member and former Oracle Labs head Bob Sproull, and former CRA board member and current head of ACM’s Education Policy Committee Bobby Schnabel all carried the message to the subcommittee that the federal investment is critical to the overall IT ecosystem, and that the payoff from that investment has been extraordinary.

From another direction, computing research community members Luis von Ahn (from Carnegie Mellon) and Ben Bederson (from UMD) joined Physics Nobelist William Phillips and Texas Instruments Vice President of R&D Martin Izzard at a series of briefings for Members of Congress and their staffs intended to make the case for the federal investment in early-stage scientific research by telling the story of the federal role in some of the key technologies of the iPad. Called “Deconstructing the iPad: How Federally-Supported Research Leads to Game-Changing Innovation” the well-attended briefings sought to take an object familiar to most Members and staffers and show that it didn’t spring wholly from the minds of engineers at Apple, but that the key technologies that enable it all bear the clear stamp of federal support.

Both events were received very well and probably helped the case for computing generate a little more traction in Congress. We’ll break down the iPad event in the next post (though Pat Thibodeau has a bit of coverage of the event in Computerworld today). In this one, we’ll summarize yesterday’s hearing.

Lazowska, Sproull and Schnabel were all invited to testify to help the committee members, who have jurisdiction over the federal Networking and Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) program — the ~$3.6 billion, 15 agency effort that comprises the federal investment in IT research — understand whether the program is delivering on its goals, or whether there are areas in which the federal government’s effort might better be directed. These sort of informational hearings — as opposed to a hearing focused on advancing a specific piece of legislation or a particular aspect of a program — are especially useful this Congress, as the membership of the Science, Space and Technology Committee is comprised in large part by freshmen members who are largely unfamiliar with the programs they oversee. Even the Chair of the Subcommittee, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), is serving in his first term — so the need for “educating” the members about the nature of the federal investment and its importance to the overall ecosystem is pretty crucial.

Lazowska began by noting the incredible pervasiveness of computing in our lives and it’s role in driving our economy, competitiveness, and in creating new industries and literally millions of new jobs. “Federal support is a key part of the vibrant ecosystem that drives IT innovation,” he said. “While the vast majority of industry R&D is focused on the engineering of the next release of products, it’s the role of Federally funded research to take the long view, creating the ideas that can later be turned into game-changers like the Internet, the Web browser and GPS.”

As the “industry” witness on the panel, Sproull amplified this point by noting that research funded by industry alone will not sustain the IT economy. “The explosive growth and dramatic advances in [the IT] sector over the last 50 years have depended on long-term research, mostly performed in academia and funded by the U.S. government. Industry works closely with academic researchers to harness their finding and expertise.”

Sproull also took a couple of minutes to detail for the subcommittee members the National Research Council’s “Tire Tracks” chart, which tries to illustrate some of the complex interactions between federally supported researchers and efforts in the private sector, making the point that federally supported research (usually in universities) doesn’t supplant industry research, there’s often a long lead time between the initial investments in fundamental research and the payoff in terms of a commercial product (though those products often turn into billion-dollar sectors of the economy), and that research often pays off in unexpected ways (another reason investments there aren’t attractive to industry).

Schnabel focused most of his comments on the computing workforce and education issues, in particular the need for the NITRD program to focus more attention on computer science education issues, especially K-12.

The panelists generally received a favorable reception from the Members in attendance. Chairman Brooks wanted the community to be mindful of the dire budget situation facing the country when they come to Congress asking for more money for Science. He made reference to a briefing he’d attended as a member of the Armed Services Committee in which he learned the devastating impact of some of the cuts proposed for the Defense Department — 1000s of defense contractors out of work, cuts to the naval fleet, etc. So, how ought we prioritize our spending?, he asked. Lazowska, in a moment of relative drama for the hearing, hopped on his iPhone and determined that the projected cost overrun of just one of the Navy’s submarines was equal to four years worth of spending in total at DARPA and NSF for computer science. And yet the payoff from that “rounding error” in the overall budget was extraordinary in its  impact.

Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) was very supportive of the overall case, but raised concerns about the workforce issues in computing. Specifically, he raised concerns about whether we were training students now for jobs that might not exist in the future — either because the technology moves so fast or because companies were moving those jobs offshore. The panelists didn’t get much time to answer the questions (a vote was pending on the House floor), but brought up the generally optimistic projections for job growth in the sector — Lazowska testified that “the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that 60% of all new jobs in all fields of science and engineering in the current decade will be jobs for computer specialists – more than all of the physical sciences, all of the life sciences, all of the social sciences, and all other fields of engineering combined” — and Schnabel shared that demand for graduates, including those at his own institution, was exceptionally strong.

The committee seems interested in moving another version of a reauthorization bill for the NITRD program, especially now that PCAST has reviewed the program and come up with a series of recommendations. However, its unlikely anything will come of it this year. Lipinski suggested that he’d still like to push for something before the end of this Congress next year. As that process moves forward, we’ll have all the details.

Computing Community Takes Case to Hill