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:
- The Case for Computing as an Undergrad Major/Minor
- The Case for Graduate School
- 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
- 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
- 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
- The small numbers of women and minorities who choose computing as a
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