On Wednesday, July 31, I testified to the U.S. House Committee on Commerce, Science and Technology in the Rayburn Building on Capitol Hill. The full committee hearing, chaired by Rep. Bart Gordon, was on oversight of the Networking, Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) program and the 2007 report of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), entitled, Leadership Under Challenge: Information Technology R&D in a Competitive World. Some of you may remember that George Scalise (Semiconductor Industry Association) and I co-chaired the PCAST subcommittee that produced this report, which reviewed the U.S. NITRD program.
- Chris Greer, Director, NITRD National Coordination Office (NNCO)
- Craig Stewart,Chair, Coalition for Academic Computing (CASC), Associate Dean, Indiana University
- Don Winter, Vice President, Engineering and Information Technology, Phantom Works, Boeing
In response to the PCAST report, the Federal Subcommittee on NITRD has issued a request for information (RFI) to a five year strategic plan, which will "…focus primarily on R&D goals that require interagency coordination, including multi-agency investments and joint programs, and respond to the priorities of the Federal government as a whole." You can find the full text of the RFI in the Federal Register and here on the NITRD web site. The deadline for responses is August 25, 2008, and I strongly encourage you to participate.
Finally, for you high-performance computing (HPC) readers scoring this at home, I remain a passionate advocate of HPC as an enabler of innovation and scientific discovery. In that spirit, remember the following excerpt from the 1999 President's IT Advisory Committee (PITAC) report (when the committee was co-chaired by Bill Joy and the late Ken Kennedy), which recommended Expeditions to the 21st Century, that would
… report back to the Nation what could be accomplished by using technologies that are quantitatively and qualitatively more powerful than those available today. In essence, these centers will create "time machines" to enable the early exploration of technologies that would otherwise be beyond reach for many years.
A Few Observations
In my testimony, I made some of the same points I have made repeatedly, namely the importance of strategic planning, interagency coordination and balanced participation, an appropriate mix of low and high risk projects and periodic reevaluation of our plans and portfolio. The key takeaways, from my perspective, are
- Taking the long view, as innovative, high risk research rarely has immediate payoffs. Indeed, in many cases the reward is not apparent until ten or even twenty years later. As they say in the sporting world, "No guts, no glory."
- Creating a strategic R&D roadmap for interagency planning and collaboration, along with some metrics that have enough specificity to determine if agencies are meeting expectations. (Note that I am not recommending planned outcomes – that is the definition of development, not research – but stretch objectives that inspire and motivate both the agencies and the community.)
- Fixing our national image of IT and our computing curricula, so they are more multidisciplinary and relevant and are more attractive to a diverse workforce. Many groups, including CRA and ACM are working on this.
- Rebalancing agency participation in a more equitable way, as the diversity of agency approaches has been a historical strength. More to the point, some agencies are not supporting their fair share of the work at present.
- Funding the America COMPETES Act to address funding shortfalls and address pressing needs in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields.
- Reconstituting the President's IT Advisory Committee (PITAC) to regularly (perhaps annually) review the NITRD program and its progress against strategic plans. Eight years elapsed between the 1999 PITAC assessment of the NITRD program and the 2007 PCAST reassessment. In computing, eight years is multiple technology lifetimes.
My oral testimony follows, with the key points highlighted. Within a few weeks, my written testimony and that of the other witnesses will be posted on the Committee's hearing page, and in due time (many months), our oral testimony will also appear in the Congressional Record.
Good morning, Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee. I am Daniel Reed, Chair of the Board of Directors for the Computing Research Association (CRA) and co-chair of the PCAST subcommittee that produced the 2007 NITRD program assessment.
Today, I would like to make five points regarding the NITRD program, followed by a set of specific recommendations for the future.
Information Technology, NITRD and Innovation
Information technology, driven by basic research investments, has transformed our society and our economy. Imagine a world without personal computers, mobile devices or the Internet, without rich computational models or deep data mining. The future can be even more amazing – if we sustain our IT research ecosystem.
Historically, the diversity of our NITRD agencies has been a major strength, fostering multiple approaches to complex problems. The Internet began as a DARPA project, grew with National Science Foundation (NSF) support and blossomed with commercial funding. The Human Genome Project was a triumph of biomedicine and IT, building on NIH, DARPA, NSF and DOE research and birthing personalized medicine.
This brings me to my second point, balancing risk and participation.
Research Horizons and Risks: The Funding Monoculture
Today, the NITRD ecosystem's health is threatened, due to an over-dependence on a single funding source and inadequate research funding overall. DARPA's retreat from fundamental computing research at U.S. universities unbalanced the NITRD ecosystem. NSF now provides 86 percent of all academic IT research funding, and fierce competition has driven researchers to focus on short-term, low risk projects. Like a stock portfolio, our long-term success depends on planning, balance and regular reassessment.
This brings me to my third point, NITRD coordination and planning.
NITRD Coordination: Strategic Planning and Execution
In general, the NITRD program has effectively fostered informal communication and coordination across agencies. However, the focus on individual agency agendas has made the NITRD program much less effective in managing coordinated projects, particularly multidisciplinary ones of rising importance
This brings me to my fourth point, research opportunities and foci.
Research Priority Areas: Identifying Innovation Foci
In 2007, PCAST revisited the priority areas identified by PITAC in 1999, concluding they remained deeply relevant. IT systems that interact with the physical world, a special case of software systems, emerged as the new top priority. These cyber-physical systems embed computing, sensors and actuators in objects that span scales from our national infrastructure to implanted biomedical devices. Their creation also requires workers with new, ever more multidisciplinary skills.
This brings me to my fifth point, sustaining the IT workforce.
Workforce: Ensuring Quality and Quantity
Today, IT has a serious image problem, affecting workforce quantity, diversity and quality. Many groups are working to dispel stereotypes and create new, multidisciplinary curricula, but much work remains. We must also do more to retain the best and brightest international students who obtain graduate degrees here. Our international competitiveness depends on the availability of qualified and diverse workforce.
This leads to my recommendations for the future.
Remaining Competitive: A Call to Action
To ensure the health of the U.S. IT ecosystem, we should fully fund the America COMPETES Act. This will fuel the IT innovation engine – fundamental research by U.S. universities and laboratories -- and broaden STEM education. I commend you and your colleagues, Mr. Chairman, for working hard on this effort.
Second, we must rebalance participation in the NITRD program so the responsibility for fundamental research is not borne by one agency. Third, we must create and regularly update a strategic R&D plan and associated metrics that define interagency accountabilities, with a mix of project scales and research risks.
Finally, we must regularly review our research investment against the strategic plan. I also believe the NITRD program is best served by a standalone and active PITAC composed of computing experts from academia and industry. Eight years between NITRD reviews has been far too long.
Mr. Chairman, thank you and this Committee for your interest in the future of the NITRD program and its importance to U.S. competitiveness and national security. At the appropriate time, I would be pleased to answer any questions you might have.