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Back to March 2002 CRN Table of Contents

[Published originally in the March 2002 edition of Computing Research News, p. 3]

Service to the Community: Former CISE Director Comments

By Ruzena Bajcsy

In this short article, I would like to summarize:
· Why I went to NSF.
· Why anyone should do this.
· My experience at NSF.
· The importance of scientists, especially computer scientists, being engaged in public decision-making.

Why I Went to NSF

I am a grateful immigrant. I arrived in this country in October 1967 to attend Stanford University, where I received a graduate fellowship (ARPA Fellowship) to study computer science. This was a great educational opportunity for me. After finishing my Ph.D. in 1972, I took a faculty position at the University of Pennsylvania, where I have been for almost 30 years.

During all of those years I have been generously supported by the National Science Foundation, and later by other federal agencies such as the Army Research Office, Navy Research Office, Air force Research Office, DARPA, and NIH. This continuous support provided a chance for me, my colleagues, and especially my students to explore many research questions that were very speculative, creative, and exciting. It gave us the freedom to develop ourselves scientifically and to pursue discoveries.

NSF was the first to fund new ideas and research on a small scale, which later enabled us to convince the other agencies that we were eligible for larger grants. It personally gave me the beginner's push and credibility in the scientific community. It did not matter that I was a woman or that I had an accent. What counted were new ideas.

So when the search committee for the Assistant Director for CISE called and asked me to apply I considered it not only an obligation, but also a privilege to serve and, in a way, to pay back to this country what I received during my career.

Why Anyone Should Do This

Science is made by scientists. We form a community. The agencies that provide support for science are part of the scientific community. For that matter, shouldn't the scientific community take full responsibility for their leadership?

After all, it has been the GOOD tradition that the best scientists rose to the occasion of leadership setting the scientific agendas, especially in times of crisis. Scientific agendas are not set in a vacuum. They are capitalizing on what is possible yet needed, desirable, affordable, and exciting. The scientists/engineers set the boundaries on what is possible; the political realities set the boundaries for what is needed/desirable; and the economics dictates what is affordable.

In this context, the biomedical sciences made a perfect argument in connecting the research in genomics with curing diseases. Similarly, the defense establishment made a good case in connecting technological advances with saving lives during wars. But the excitement of discovery is much harder to convey. This is where visionary scientists must step up and make the case to the public, which in turn translates to support for further research. Take the example of astronomers who have very successfully conveyed their excitement to the public.

In summary, nobody but the active, visionary computer scientists can make the case--what is exciting, what is possible, and what is necessary for the good of the nation as far as information technology is concerned. Hence, it is the responsibility of all of us to serve in this capacity.

My Experience at NSF

I was very lucky. I came to CISE at the right time. NSF has had the Director, Rita Colwell, who fully supported the increase in the IT budget. She and I agreed on most issues at hand. The Deputy Director, Joseph Bordogna, was my dean at Penn. We knew each other very well and could fully trust each other. His support and advice were invaluable to me.

The PITAC (Presidential Information Technology Advisory Committee) had just issued its 1999 report, which truly energized the Washington Establishment to support new IT investment. In the White House, we had a strong proponent of IT in Vice President Gore and his assistant, Tom Kalil. The President's advisor, Neil Lane, and his special assistant for IT, Henry Kelly, helped to garner support not only in the White House, but also in Congress.

Many other people were deeply engaged. The CRA and Ed Lazowska testified on behalf of the increased budget for IT. All of the CEOs from top computer companies signed a letter in our support. It was a truly coordinated effort from all components of the society that made it happen.

I am recounting all of this so that the community understands that funding for science, and computer science especially, does not happen automatically, and if it happens, it is a work of many. If you read the PITAC report carefully, you will find that it serves three interwoven communities: 1) computer science proper; 2) computational sciences; and 3) networking Infrastructure.

In terms of influence and size, it is the computational scientists who are dominant. For some time, this community has made a very successful argument: for every increase of the power of computation, they deliver new scientific discoveries and service to the nation. Examples include weather forecasting, drug synthesis, new material synthesis, and understanding the environment.

The networking infrastructure group, again, is a rather coherent community whose primary responsibility is to provide connectivity. This association is composed of the chief information officers employed at each university campus or institution.

Finally, the computer science community: The members are typically researchers either at universities or in research labs. It is important to recognize that all of these three communities are interdependent; therefore it is to their advantage to support, rather than oppose, each other. In fact, there are good intellectual reasons why they should work together. The computational scientists have computational needs on a large scale, and their problems have national importance. Yet the large-scale problems--either in computation or data intensive or geographically distributed--offer fertile grounds for many basic computer science problems and, in turn, it is easy to argue that the computational scientists cannot do their job without the advances in computer science.

So one important lesson from NSF's point of view is to work together as much as possible. This benefits all of the sciences and education that NSF supports. 

Furthermore, it is much easier to make an argument to Congress for an increased budget if the constituency is large.


I would like to conclude with an appeal to the scientific community to be engaged in forming scientific policy. This can take many different forms:

· Participating in various workshops convened to formulate the directions of the scientific agendas as the SCIENTISTS see them.

· Participating in various advisory boards to the federal government where priorities are being set regarding where federal investments should be made in science and education.

· Serving in professional organizations that actively inform and argue in Congress about what is scientifically feasible, desirable, important, and so on.

· Serving in various capacities in the federal government where planning of the scientific agenda is taking place, arguing for this agenda, and, finally, seeing through a fair distribution of the resources to the community.

Our community, broadly speaking (computer scientists, computational scientist, and the networking people), should take it as our collective responsibility to appoint the best among us to serve our interests. It should be an honor to serve, and we should award people who are doing a good job in this regard.

Ruzena Bajcsy, who recently completed her term as Assistant Director of CISE at NSF, now directs the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) program at UC Berkeley ( She is an adjunct professor in the department of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania.

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