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<< Back to May 2004 CRN Table of Contents

[Published originally in the May 2004 edition of Computing Research News, Vol. 16/No. 3, pp. 4, 23.]

NSF/CISE: Looking Back, Looking Forward

By Peter A. Freeman

I began my service as AD/CISE in May 2002. This column is my "report" to the community on some of the highlights of the past two years, and some indications of where I hope we will head in the next two years. As such, I hope that you will read it as a personal report, not an official NSF pronouncement!

As I look back over the past two years, four things of importance to the community stand out in my mind:

1. Intellectual Leadership

We are now capitalizing on some of the new directions emerging from ITR, from national needs, and from direct inputs from the community to establish focused and strategic directions such as cyber trust and science of design. In the area of homeland security, we are helping to provide direct and effective leadership across the government. At the same time, we are moving to strengthen and invigorate support for core areas of research. In the area of cyberinfrastructure (CI) we are leading efforts, nationally and within NSF, to exploit the convergence of technological growth, application prototyping, and policy directions.

2. Organizational Excellence

The CISE reorganization has brought our structure into better alignment with intellectual directions in the field, especially the interactions between areas (such as networking and operating systems), and is now permitting us to address a number of internal management issues that impinge on our ability to serve you effectively and efficiently. The flexibility that this new structure permits is already helping us internally, and I am confident that going forward you will see the benefits to you directly.

3. Budget Growth and Direction

CISE continues to do at least as well as the rest of NSF overall, which is pretty good, given the competing demands on the Federal budget. Program directors and senior management at NSF in all areas increasingly understand the importance of our field to the nation and to the conduct of S&E research and education broadly. The concerns I heard from you in my first few months at NSF about what would happen when the ITR priority area ended in FY04 have turned into useful discussions of how to best use that money to continue to strengthen our field.

4. Communication

I have taken a number of steps to ensure better communication between you and NSF. This column, which appears regularly in every issue of CRN, is one. I have made changes in how the CISE Advisory Committee is constituted and works that have greatly increased its impact on what we are doing. I have encouraged Division Directors and others to visit with you on your campus whenever possible, and I have done a good bit of that myself. A number of steps have been taken internally as well to improve communication within CISE and between us and other parts of NSF.

There is a fifth thing that stands out in my mind that is much more personal-I am enjoying the opportunity to serve you, the field, and the nation immensely. More about that below.

As I have noted in various ways in a number of public forums, after listening carefully to you and to a number of other sources, I have set four overarching objectives for CISE. We have been operating along these lines for over a year, and I expect that they will continue to characterize what we do during my next two years as AD/CISE.

Strengthen Core CS Research

CISE supports work in a number of fields and we will do as much as we can to build all of them, but computer science is the broadest and deepest of all of the computing-related fields and the one from which the largest number of fundamental new ideas spring. It is essential that computer science continues to grow in its intellectual depth and impact on the entire computer field. We are already doing a number of things to advance on this objective: Migrating ITR funds over the next several years into core program areas, crosscutting themes, emergent areas, and new modalities such as center-scale activities; working hard to balance disciplinary research with integrative activities; and developing strategic new areas such as cyber trust and science of design.

Lead in Cyberinfrastructure

Many of you have heard me say that if we didn't have this as an application driver for fundamental CS research that we would have to invent it. I view the fact that CISE has the responsibility within NSF for providing for shared CI as a great opportunity, not as a problem. CI is revolutionizing the conduct of essentially all of S&E research and education, which in turn will have a profound impact on our society for generations to come. Who wouldn't want to be in the vanguard of that? But, even taking a narrow, CS research viewpoint, the opportunities in CI are immense. Look at what is happening (or could be soon) in CI with sensor networks, algorithm design, computational science and engineering, distributed systems, language and compiler design, human interfaces, information integration, manipulation of data, software engineering, and on and on.

Broaden Participation

All of us know of the unacceptably low rates of participation in computing by women and minorities. Today we are also faced with declining numbers of new Ph.D.s and undergraduate enrollments, even though all the predictions for the mid- and long-term are for increasing demand for IT people at all levels. Additionally, the challenges our country is facing demand an increase in the number of U.S. citizens in our fields, not to the exclusion of foreign citizens who have made such great contributions to our country, but in addition to them. CISE has supported a good bit of research that informs us as to the reasons for some of these situations, and it is now time to focus more on intervention to do something about broadening participation.

Make CISE the Best-Managed Unit at NSF

Obviously, this is an internal objective. Why should you care? Very simply, because if we are not effective and efficient in our operations, then we cannot serve you as well as we should. We will continue to refine our new structure and the programs within it, improve our review of proposals, try to do a better job of communicating with you, and, above all, work to ensure that the best ideas from you receive sufficient funding.
These objectives are broad enough that there will obviously be a number of specifics within each, only a few of which I have mentioned here. Their breadth will permit us to respond to changing conditions of budget, national need, and community desires. Your continued comments on them and on the details they encapsulate are essential.

Let me close with a few personal comments about service and working with NSF. As most of you understand, NSF is unique in the extent to which the research and education community guides it, both indirectly and directly. Indirectly, your service on panels, Committees of Visitors, and Advisory Committees, and your participation in workshops and other meetings, provide a strong set of inputs that guide the actions of NSF staff at all levels.

When you come to NSF as a rotator, you are able to actively assist in shaping the direction of our programs and policies. In addition, you are then able to take back to your position in the community a greatly enhanced understanding of your field and of the process that NSF follows. That is obviously beneficial to you and to NSF, and we are always looking for those of you interested in a rotator position.

There is another mode of service to NSF that I want to underscore for some of you. As our very young field matures, some of us are also growing older (!) and finding that we may be able to contribute in leadership roles in ways that we might not have been able to or have wanted to contribute at earlier stages of our careers. Serving in a leadership role is a need at NSF that is especially important and full of opportunity for you personally and professionally.

Having done other things myself, I can attest to how rewarding it is both personally and intellectually to be able every day to work on things that are challenging, difficult, and important to a broad group of people in the community and to the Nation. I am thankful for the opportunity to serve as AD/CISE, and look forward to the next two years with relish.

Peter A. Freeman is Assistant Director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering at the National Science Foundation.

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