As a boy, I remember my grandfather and my uncles telling stories about the Great Depression, the struggle to find a job – any job – and the life changing perspectives that fear and uncertainty brought. Whether it was my grandfather's lifelong distrust of banks (perhaps more well-founded than I then realized) or the small concrete markers from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) or Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects that employed my uncles, the effects were both psychological and tangible.
Today, we face economic challenges that are unprecedented in the memory of most of the living. The recession, two consecutive quarters of decline in GDP, is real, and the feared "D word" – depression – is whispered ominously. Companies and storied banks are failing, jobs and fortunes are being lost, families are being disrupted, and lives are being destroyed. The fear and uncertainty are palpable, and few have escaped unscathed.
Franklin Roosevelt's famous comment, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," was a subtle but telling observation on behavioral economics. Fear deepens the economic downward spiral because making producers and consumers more conservative and risk averse, decreasing spending and the flow of funding. Government action (or inaction) can mitigate (or exacerbate) the severity but not eliminate it. In this spirit, President Obama has often used a phrase from speeches by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., -"the fierce urgency of now" – as a mantra for economic and social action.
Innovating the Future
The proposed American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 (aka the economic stimulus package) emphasizes investment in infrastructure construction, reminiscent of the CCC and WPA, health care, education, efficient energy and one of the key foundations of our innovation economy – science and technology. For the latter, the House proposal includes $10 billion for science facilities, research, and instrumentation and $6 billion to expand broadband Internet access in rural and other underserved areas.
The Computing Research Association (CRA) policy blog, contains an analysis of the ARRA proposal and its implications for computing. Among other things, the proposal includes increased funding for the Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST). One notable element of the ARRA proposal is $100M for the Department of Energy's Advanced Scientific Computing Research program.
If history is any guide, Congressional debates on ARRA will undoubtedly be highly partisan and acrimonious. What emerges from the political process may well differ in some substantive ways from the Democratic proposal. However, in a global economy, there can be no doubt that competitive advantage accrues to those who innovate more rapidly and successfully, making research investment a critical element of the fierce urgency.
Computing Sociology and Innovation
We are suffering from a research funding shortfall, which the economic stimulus, as a step toward funding the America COMPETES Act, will help address. However, I believe we in computing are suffering from a larger, more ill-defined but more pernicious problem – the lack of strategic thinking and long-term research vision. I am not alone in that perspective.
In November 2008, NSF CISE, the CRA and the Computing Community Consortium convened a one day summit to discuss the future of computing research. Attendees included selected heads of major computing departments and information science schools, as well as industrial research leaders. We all came together to discuss some key questions:
- Are there signs and guideposts for how most effectively to move the field forward—especially without losing the essence of our identity and the strength of our contributions?
- What is the appropriate balance between curiosity-driven research and technological engagement, the essence of what Donald Stokes called Pasteur's Quadrant?
- As stewards of the field, how do we ensure the right decision processes are in place for faculty hiring and promotion, graduate student admissions and mentoring, and funding practices and processes, to create the most vibrant and exciting future?
- How do we enhance our community's willingness to value professional service, which can increase advocacy for our field, both at our own institutions and nationally, leading to the resources needed to fuel innovation?
You can find more details in the December issue of Computing Research News (CRN).
We did not reach definitive conclusions, but we agreed that there are substantive issues to be addressed. Our economic crisis and the potential for new funding via ARRA make it important that we face these computing community questions forthrightly and directly.