The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) is charged by executive order to conduct a review of the Networking and Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) program, with PCAST serving in this role as the President's IT Advisory Committee (PITAC).
What is NITRD, you might ask? You care, you really care, because NITRD has transformed your life in amazing ways.
NITRD is a coordinating program for the fourteen agencies that conduct information technology research in the U.S. With an aggregate budget of $3.1B, NITRD is a framework for enabling diverse agencies to identify and articulate common NIT R&D goals, and to coordinate in planning, budgeting, and assessing their NIT R&D activities. The participating agencies include DARPA, NSF, the DOE, DOD, NIH, NSA, NARA, NASA, NIST and NOAA, among others. Almost all academic computing research is covered by the NITRD umbrella.
With this NITRD backdrop, the executive order asks PCAST to
… provide the Director [of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP)] with an independent assessment of: (1) progress made in implementing the [Networking and Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD)] Program; (2) the need to revise the Program; (3) the balance between the components of the Program; (4) whether the research and development undertaken pursuant to the Program is helping to maintain United States leadership in [networking and information] technology; and (5) other issues identified by the Director.
The previous NITRD review was conducted in 1999 by PITAC, and produced the influential report, IInformation Technology Research: Investing in Our Future. The report, produced while Ken Kennedy and Bill Joy were co-chairs led to a dramatic increase in research funding for information technology and emphasized the critical importance of IT to the nation’s economic, research competitiveness and national security.
I am a member of PCAST and co-chair of the subcommittee (along with George Scalise, chair of the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA)) tasked with conducting the next review of the NITRD program. Yesterday, during a two day meeting at the National Academy of Sciences, George and I briefed the full PCAST on our successor, draft report. This report is the culmination of a year of interviews with academic, industrial and government stakeholders.
Our presentation will soon be posted on the PCAST web site, but the salient points bear repeating broadly and frequently: the leadership position of the U.S. in IT is at risk, as other nations invest strategically in IT. To use a calculus analogy, the U.S. position may be ahead, but we are losing on the first and second derivatives (i.e., the change and rate of change in other countries is higher).
If we are to maintain our competitive leadership, four actions are necessary:
The supply of IT professionals is inadequate to meet U.S. needs. We must modify curricula to be more responsive and relevant to current needs and attract and retain more students, both by offering more graduate fellowships to Americans and easing visa processes for international students who receive degrees from accredited U.S. graduate programs. As part of this process, notably curricula reform, we must work to redress the shortfall in the number of women and members of other underrepresented groups in computing.
Shift the balance of research from overly short-term, incremental activities to longer term, higher risk and more multidisciplinary research. Moreover, universities continue to miss research opportunities because of organizational structures and incentives that emphasize disciplinary studies rather than multidisciplinary research. This was also a key observation of the 1999 PITAC report, which proposed transformative Expeditions to the 21st Century.
Reprioritize NITRD research to address emerging needs. Networked systems affecting the physical world (embedded systems, critical infrastructure …) are one notable priority. As a crosscutting, multidisciplinary problem, such research could also increase the social relevance of many computing research projects and attract a more diverse student population.
The NITRD program's coordination processes have been effective, but they are inadequate to meet anticipated national needs and to maintain U.S. leadership in a globally competitive world. The NITRD program must support larger, more audacious projects. PCAST recommends that the NITRD program develop a strategic, interagency plan and an implementation roadmap to realize these larger goals.
As was noted in the seminal report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm (produced by a group chaired by PCAST member Norm Augustine), we are in the midst of an intense, global competition. We must be aggressive, innovative and collaborative if we are to preserve our current position and continue to reap the benefits. Remember that over thirty percent of net economic growth in the past decade was due to information technology.
Over the next few months, we will be completing the PCAST report on the NITRD program, with electronic and printed versions available this summer. In the meantime, my comments above should not be viewed as officially representative of PCAST, but my personal interpretation of the draft report.