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<< Back to September 2004 CRN Table of Contents

[Published originally in the September 2004 edition of Computing Research News, Vol. 16/No. 4]

Old Challenges, New Opportunities

By Jim Foley, CRA Board Chair

We as a computing research community have challenges ahead—and opportunities to meet those challenges. The challenges are to attract the very best undergraduate and graduate students to meet the projected labor-force needs of the next decade, to relate computing to real-world needs, and to appropriately fund computing research to maintain and increase national well-being and economic competitiveness. These challenges have been developing for some years, and were brought into sharp focus at CRA’s biennial conference at Snowbird in July, most notably in the opening plenary “Computing Après le Crash.”

Because the challenges are critical to the entire field of computing, we convened the organizational leadership of the computing research community—CRA and our six affiliate societies (AAAI, ACM, CACS/AIC, IEEE CS, SIAM, and USENIX), CSTB, NSF, and PITAC—at the conference to: a) coordinate our current approaches to these challenges; b) develop a unified strategy for addressing them even more vigorously; and c) use that strategy to identify and undertake additional initiatives. We will be meeting frequently to continue this process. Our efforts focus on explaining what computing is all about, why it is important and interesting, and making three cases to the appropriate audiences:

  1. The Case for Computing as an Undergrad Major/Minor
  2. The Case for Graduate School
  3. The Case for Computing Research Funding

At this coordinating meeting, each group reported on their own activities relating to these areas. CRA described our many ongoing activities, including CRA-W, CDC, and government relations, as well as three new activities that had been established at our Snowbird board meeting. The activities are:

  • CRA-E, the CRA Committee on Graduate Education, which will be making the case for graduate education and assessing the state of graduate degree programs. Jack Stankovic (UVA) is one co-chair; the other co-chair position is being filled.
  • The Industry Committee, recognizing that major companies are hiring many Ph.D.s to work in product development in addition to research labs, will be developing the case for industrial opportunities. Marc Snir (UIUC) and Dick Waters (MERL) are co-chairs.
  • More and more faculty work in interdisciplinary areas of computing beyond core computer science. This is often essential in doing computing research related to current needs. At the same time, many departments are not well prepared to evaluate such faculty for promotion and tenure. An ad-hoc CRA committee, chaired by Dan Reed (UNC-Chapel Hill) is developing best-practices guidelines for evaluating such faculty.

The problems underlying these challenges have been brewing, in some cases for years, and are often interrelated. Some of the problems include:

  • The dot-com crash caused short-term job losses in computing, leading incoming undergraduates to turn away from computing as a major.
  • Decreasing undergraduate enrollments have in some cases led to budget cuts, or threaten to do so.
  • Offshoring has (incorrectly) enhanced the perception of computing as a dead-end career.
  • The aftermath of 9/11 has made it difficult for some international students to study in the United States; at the same time, educational opportunities in other countries are becoming increasingly competitive with those in the United States.
  • Pressures on the federal budget have prevented Congress and the Administration from following through on their authorizing a doubling of the NSF budget from 2003 to 2008. In fact, the NSF budget will likely decrease between 1 percent and 2 percent this coming year.
  • Lack of understanding that the massive investments being made in life sciences research cannot be fully effective without further investment in computing research.
  • Proposal success rates within NSF/CISE are often in the 5 percent range, compared with about 25 percent in other NSF directorates.
  • Increasingly attractive employment opportunities for international students in their home countries are likely to deprive the United States of this important source of human resources. (Data do not yet support this widely expressed concern; many feel that it is just a matter of time.)
  • The popular misperception that computing is just programming, and that programming is a solitary activity practiced solely by so-called “geeks.” This is exacerbated by the emphasis on programming in the computer science AP exam.
  • The small numbers of women and minorities who choose computing as a profession.

On the other hand, there is much to say about computing that is good. Part of the problem is that we as a community have not been saying it sufficiently strongly and effectively. Some of the good things include:

  • Two-thirds of the US productivity gains since 1995 are due to IT—“Information Technology has been the distinguishing feature of this pivotal period in American economic history” (Alan Greenspan).
  • The computing industry is a significant portion of the US economy; exports help moderate the deficit in balance of payments.
  • The computing industry is a direct result of federally funded research.
  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 10-year demand for IT jobs of 1.6 million (including replacement due to retirements, etc.)—far greater than the demand for engineers, life scientists, and physical scientists. (This is much higher than our current graduation rates.)
  • Computing directly affects our national priorities of health care, defense, homeland security, and economic competitiveness.
  • Computing has greatly enhanced the conduct of most scientific research.
  • Computing is improving our lives.

The bottom line—we do have some problems, some of our own making, some imposed by external forces. CRA and the entire computing research establishment are already taking up the challenges presented by the problems, and will be working together even more than in the past. If you want to help, let me know (jim.foley [at]


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