As a computing researcher, as chair of the Computing Research Association (CRA), and as a former member of the President's IT Advisory Committee and the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), I have spoken and written repeatedly about the state of computing research in the United States, the importance of long-term, strategic investment and the critical need for strategic, interagency planning.
Today, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 2020, the Networking and Information Technology Research and Development Act of 2009, which embodies many of those recommendations. As press release from the House Committee on Science and Technology notes, this reauthorization of the Networking and Information Technology R&D (NITRD) program
… strengthens interagency planning, coordination, and prioritization for NITRD by requiring the development and periodic update of a strategic plan informed by both industry and academia. This plan is meant to create a vision for networking and information technology R&D across the federal government, and provide specific metrics for measuring progress toward that vision.
The Road to the Present
As chair of the Computing Research Association (CRA), I was pleased to endorse H.R. 2020. Simply put, H.R. 2020 is the culmination of many years of background work, reports, discussions and Congressional hearings by diverse groups.
In July 2008, i testified before Rep. Gordon and the House Science and Technology Committee ("NITRD: Come, Let Us Reason Together"), summarizing the 2007 recommendations of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) report, Leadership Under Challenge: Information Technology R&D in a Competitive World, whose production I had the privilege to co-chair. The report included the following recommendations ("PCAST, NITRD and the Future"), emphasizing the contributions of information technology to our continued prosperity and well being, something especially timely given current circumstances:
- 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
Thanks to the hard work of many people, all of these were addressed in the NITRD reauthorization bill. Specifically, the reauthorization includes creation of a five year strategic plan, to be updated every three years and assessed by an independent committee whose co-chairs are members of PCAST. The reauthorization also emphasizes the importance of long term, multidisciplinary research and identifies cyberphysical systems as a critical element of the research agenda.
These are sufficiently noteworthy that I feel compelled to quote from H.R. 2020, regarding the strategic plan:
(A) foster the transfer of research and development results into new technologies and applications for the benefit of society, including through cooperation and collaborations with networking and information technology research, development, and technology transition initiatives supported by the States;
(B) encourage and support mechanisms for interdisciplinary research and development in high-performance computing, including through collaborations across agencies, across Program Component Areas, with industry, with Federal laboratories (as defined in section 4 of the Stevenson-Wydler Technology Innovation Act of 1980 (15 U.S.C. 3703)), and with international organizations;
(C) address long-term challenges of national importance for which solutions require large-scale, long-term, interdisciplinary research and development;
(D) place emphasis on innovative and high-risk projects having the potential for substantial societal returns on the research investment; and
(E) strengthen all levels of networking and information technology education and training programs to ensure an adequate, well-trained workforce.
Yes, high-performance computing is identified explicitly, as a collaborative activity across government, industry and academia and with international partners.
As some of you may recall, cyberphysical systems (i.e., computing systems that interact with the physical world) emerged as the top research priority from the PCAST assessment of NITRD needs. Today, our critical national and international infrastructure (financial systems, telecommunications, transportation, and utility grid), national security, and our personal lives (communications, biomedical devices, household appliances, automobiles and entertainment systems) are all computer enhanced and mediated.
Computing is an inseparable part of our culture and our prosperity, and ensuring the reliable, correct and secure operation of this cyberphysical infrastructure is central to our future. Hence, I am especially delighted that the reauthorization calls for a joint university/industry task force to develop a research and development agenda for cyberphysical systems, together with defining roles and responsibilities, suggesting funding mechanisms and discussing intellectual property (IP) mechanisms. I am especially pleased that IP mechanisms was identified explicitly, as I believe we need to rethink how our public-private sector partnerships are best organized for mutual benefit.
The Road Ahead
The work by the House Science and Technology Committee and the passage of H.R. 2020 by the full House paves the way for the future. We have defined a scaffold for the future. Now we must erect the enabling infrastructure for a knowledge-centric society. I am confident the new incarnation of PCAST, which includes my Microsoft colleague, Craig Mundie, will continue to watch the progress of the NITRD program as our ever-changing field helps shape our future.