[Published originally in the September 2004 edition of Computing Research News, Vol. 16/No. 4]
CISE—Perspectives for the Coming Year
By Peter A. Freeman
My column in May 2004 provided a “looking back/looking forward” report. This column provides some perspectives that may be useful to you as we move forward in the directions outlined in May.
The objectives for CISE that I discussed in this column in May are still completely operative. Indeed, events and observations in the intervening four months only strengthen my belief that we are on the right course for the broad benefit of the country and of the field—you.
Nonetheless, as academe and the Federal Government start their respective ‘new years,’ it may be useful to you to consider some over-arching factors that will impact what NSF—and others—does in the coming year. These, too, are based on events and observations of the past few months.
The most dramatic event has been the rapid change in the financial outlook for the U.S. Government and, thus, for NSF. As I wrote my column for the May issue, we still expected at least a modest increase in our budget for 2005. Although the process is not completed, the most recent actions of Congress now make that appear improbable, and the outlook for the next several years is sobering. At the same time, the demands on mission agencies continue to intensify, making their support for research ever more difficult.
This double bind—flat budgets coupled with greatly increased demand for research support—will directly affect every program in CISE. Indeed, it already has, with ‘success rates’ in FY04 probably being lower than ever before. This has obvious implications for all of us.
In the context of CISE’s objectives, however, it makes it even more important that we be focused, strategic, and efficient in our operations. More than ever we need to strengthen core CS research because of its pervasive impact on all of IT, and to broaden participation in the field to ensure that the country has the workforce it needs.
One positive note on the resource input side is that CISE has been given several new staff positions. While the rapid growth of the CISE budget over the past five years means that we are still behind other areas of NSF in staff size, this increment will be a great help and will allow us to serve you better in the coming months and years. Some of these positions have been posted already and others will be in the coming months.
I have asserted that there is growing understanding of the importance of IT broadly and that at the core of all IT technically is computer science. As an example, the testimony I gave before a subcommittee of the House Government Reform Committee in July could just as well have been given by Chairman Adam Putnam, whose introduction was a glowing endorsement of the value of IT. The presentations at Snowbird on the interactions between CS and other scientific disciplines illustrated well how essential IT has become to the conduct of all science and engineering research. A recent survey in The Economist on the state of health care pointedly observed that the health care industry was lagging in reaping the benefits of IT. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates of job growth are largely based on growth in IT-related job categories. Many of the measures being employed for homeland security and national defense are heavily dependent on IT.
Essentially any example of the importance of IT (and thus of CS) that you want to pick is based on the value of IT to some other activity—health care, government operations, research in other disciplines. On the one hand, that is a very useful attribute in a time of restricted budgets because it helps support the case for additional funding for research. Obviously, that means that we must become more expert in connecting what we do to results that are of interest to society broadly.
I am not implying that all research needs to be motivated in that way; far from it. The possibility of future benefits may not be apparent when doing basic research; we must continue to do foundational work that provides a better understanding of all areas of computing. I am implying that we need to learn how to make a better case for the fundamental, investigator-driven research that has produced most of the IT advances to date, and to show how that research can eventually result in great benefits.
Conversely, the fact that the results of our research are usually viewed as enabling some other activity instead of being interesting in their own right (as is the case with mathematics or cosmology, for example) suggests to me that we still have a long way to go in becoming a ‘real’ science. Ultimately I believe we will be successful, but in spite of the rapid development of our field, achievement of that intellectual goal will take many years. In the shorter term, however, we can and must be more rigorous in providing evaluations of our work, in building a rigorous and referred-to body of knowledge, and in developing theoretical underpinnings for our work.
One thing I noted at the biennial Snowbird Conference this July was a feeling of increased maturity and confidence in the field. I heard many fewer plaints that we weren’t taken seriously and many more comments about how you were adding substantively to important research projects in collaboration with other scientists and engineers. This attitude of equality and worth is important.
In the area of broadening participation, we have made some good strides just in the past few months in terms of supporting significant efforts in the community and in building up our staff in this area here at NSF. This will be a prime focus of my attention and I will provide updates from time to time.
So, overall, I am still optimistic about the future and the outlook for our field and for what it can contribute to society. There is no question that these are difficult times, but we are fortunate as researchers and educators in computing-related disciplines to be at the heart of many of the most important issues and to be able to contribute to them in such positive ways.
Unfortunately, CISE and the computer science community have suffered tragedy and great loss in the past few months. As many of you know, Dr. Frank Anger, Deputy Division Director of CCF, was killed in July on his way to Snowbird. His wife, Dr. Rita Rodriguez, a valued CISE program director, was gravely injured, but is recovering. Dr. Carl Smith, a long-time program director (most recently, part-time) died after an extended illness. Details on these tragedies can be found at www.cise.nsf.gov. We are looking forward to having Rita back at NSF when she recovers. The substantial contributions of Frank and Carl to their research fields and to NSF will be long remembered.
Peter A. Freeman is NSF Assistant Director for Computer and
Information Science and Engineering.
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