In a previous post, I discussed the ongoing review of the Federal Networking and Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) program, with the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) serving in this role as the President’s IT Advisory Committee (PITAC). On Monday, the PCAST report, Leadership Under Challenge: Information Technology R&D in a Competitive World, was distributed with an accompanying press release.
I was privileged to co-chair the review with George Scalise, head of the Semiconductor Industry Association, in partnership with our PCAST colleagues and a national technical advisory group. In addition, the report would not have been possible without support from the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the National Coordination Office (NCO). Here’s a deep thank you to all of you!
The 2007 PCAST report is a successor to the previous NITRD review conducted in 1999 by PITAC and co-chaired by Ken Kennedy and Bill Joy. That report, Information Technology Research: Investing in Our Future, led to a dramatic increase in research funding for information technology and emphasized the critical importance of IT to the nation’s economic well being, research competitiveness and national security.
My thoughts below are personal and should not be viewed as PCAST’s official position, though I believe they reflect what PCAST concluded.
The new PCAST report examines the competitive IT position of the United States with respect to other countries and emerging opportunities. As I noted in the OSTP press release, “The Council concludes that while the U.S. is still in a leadership position, other nations are challenging that lead in a number of areas. The NITRD Program must focus on visionary research and work with universities to keep the United States at the cutting edge.”
To use a technical analogy, this is just about simple differential calculus – position, velocity and acceleration. (You non-geeks, stay with me, please. I could have gone off the deep end and used an example from catastrophe theory instead!) If d0, v0 and a are the initial position, initial velocity and acceleration, respectively, then the current position at time t is
f(t) = 0.5 at^2 + v0*t + d0
Put another way, the U.S. is, by most measures, currently ahead of its international competitors. However, other countries are gaining competitive ground (i.e., greater new velocity at), and they are doing so increasingly rapidly (i.e., greater acceleration a).
To sustain U.S. leadership, the new PCAST report recommends that the Federal government:
- Address the demand for skilled IT professionals by revamping curricula, increasing fellowships, and simplifying visa processes.
- Emphasize larger-scale, longer-term, multidisciplinary IT R&D and innovative, higher-risk research
- Give priority to R&D in IT systems connected with the physical world, software, digital data, and networking
- Develop and implement strategic and technical plans for the NITRD program
Let's look at each of these in just a bit more detail. For an extended analysis, of course, please read the PCAST report itself.
First, we must get past the dot.com bust notion that a degree in computing is a dead-end. Nothing could be further from the truth! The computing jobs of the future will be plentiful, high paying and intellectually stimulating. However, current networking and information technology curricula in general, and computer science curricula specifically, do not adequately meet employer and student needs.
We must think deeply and expansively about how to modernize curricula and broaden the base of participation in computing if the U.S. is to remain a global leader in IT. We also need to recognize that smart people will always be in short supply, and the U.S. must continue to attract and retain talent from around the world.
The PCAST report also notes that the number of large-scale, multidisciplinary research activities with long time horizons is limited. Today, too few projects, whether small or large, are visionary. We must rebalance our research portfolio to include more innovative, high risk research. By analogy, we’ve put too much of our investment in certificates of deposit and not enough in high growth companies. This yields a guaranteed return, but an unnecessarily modest one. We need better balance – evolutionary progress via a suite of lower risk projects and revolutionary progress via a complementary suite of higher risk, more radical projects.
PCAST also concluded that eight areas deserve research priority by the Federal government, albeit with different emphases: (1) NIT systems connected with the physical world; (2) software; (3) data, data stores and data streams; (4) networking; (5) high-end computing; (6) cybersecurity and information assurance; (7) human-computer interaction; and (8) NIT and the social sciences. As new funding becomes available (e.g., as authorized by the American Competitiveness Initiative), the first four areas should receive disproportionately larger funding increases because they address issues for which progress will have both the greatest effect on important applications and the highest leverage in advancing networking and information technology capabilities.
Finally, greater interagency coordination and strategic planning are needed to maintain competitive advantage. Simply put, the U.S. needs a cohesive strategic plan for the entire multiagency NITRD program that identifies and sustains progress toward long-term research goals, with demonstrable intermediate metrics and regular assessments.
The PCAST NITRD report also assessed the U.S. government’s responses to the 1999 PITAC report. Without doubt, we have made considerable progress, and the government responded positively and effectively to most of the 1999 report’s recommendations. Research funding for IT increased substantially and structural changes were made to the NITRD program. However, there were also missed opportunities.
The 1999 report identified software as the top technical priority, noting that software systems were then among the most complex structures engineered by humans. However, fundamental software research did not become the program’s absolute priority. Similarly, the government has not put sufficiently high priority on large-scale data problems and next generation high-end computing architectures, with consequent competitive risks. Finally, the 1999 recommendation of large-scale expeditions to the 21st century, as catalytic research initiatives, was not adopted.
A leading international position is not a birthright – continuing U.S. leadership in networking and information technology will require bold, imaginative thinking and collaboration among government, academia and industry. Make no mistake; we are in a high stakes race to the future. Remember the calculus – in the long term, it’s all about sustained acceleration.