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CRA Testimony on the FY 1999 NSF Budget Request

given by Peter A. Freeman, Dean, College of Computing, Georgia Institute of Technology,
and Member, Board of Directors Computing Research Association

before the Subcommittee on VA, HUD, and Independent Agencies,
Committee on Appropriations, U.S. House of Representatives

April 21, 1998

Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today on the subject of Fiscal Year 1999 Appropriations for the National Science Foundation. My name is Peter Freeman. I am Dean of the College of Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology. In addition, I sit on the Board of Directors of the Computing Research Association (CRA) and chair its Committee on Government Affairs. I am testifying today on behalf of CRA, not the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The Computing Research Association represents nearly 200 academic departments of computer science and computer engineering and industrial and nonprofit laboratories that engage in fundamental computing research. We also have as affiliates the major professional societies in the computing fields. Including members of those affiliates, CRA represents on research policy issues a combined membership of more than 100,000 professionals in the computing field. I have included as an attachment to this testimony further information about CRA and the services it provides to the research community.

It is a pleasure to appear before this committee in support of NSF's request for a 10 percent increase in its annual budget. This committee is to be commended for its continued strong support of fundamental academic research in all areas of science by sustaining NSF funding levels through hard times as well as good. Dire predictions were made about the effects that tightening the reigns on the deficit might have on national research funding, but, despite those pressures, this committee found a way to keep NSF funding moving ahead. We thank you for that.

On the other hand, we know better than to assume that, because the deficit appears to have ended, your task will be any easier. Competition for funding is as stiff as ever, but the arguments for sustaining a high growth rate for research funding are perhaps stronger than they have ever been. It is our view that the current strength of the American economy is, at least in part, the dividend of past investments in research, particularly in information technology. It only makes sense to reinvest some of those proceeds back into this powerful engine of economic growth--fundamental computing research--especially since there seems to be no end in sight to the continued payoff of information technology to the nation.

I would like to make three main points in my testimony.

  1. Computing research is critically important to the nation's welfare, security, and economic health.

    This point has been well documented. In a small report published by CRA, "Computing Research: A National Investment for Leadership in the 21st Century" (attached), five essays describe examples--databases, computer graphics, RISC computers, the Internet, and artificial intelligence--where fundamental university research in computing led to major industrial economic benefits. For the sake of brevity, we chose five, but many other examples were possible. The 1995 National Research Council report, "High Performance Computing and Communications," makes the same point more broadly, describing the complex, two-way flow of ideas between university research, industrial research, and development.

    But the direct impact of U.S. world strength in the information industry is only one way in which computing research is transforming our society. There can be no doubt that the recent surge in economic growth has been due, at least in part, to our realizing the economic gains of the information technology revolution that has taken place over the past two decades, from the advent of the personal desktop computer to the deployment of a broadly available, commercial Internet. These developments potentially placed the benefits of information technology in every office and every factory. Computing is embedded in all kinds of devices and has spread widely throughout the world in smart machines and systems. Modern computers and data communications now pervade every activity in our society, making our lives better and our economy stronger. "The Emerging Digital Economy," a report recently released by the Department of Commerce, indicates that the contributions of the information technology sector reduced overall inflation by one full percentage point in 1996 and 1997.

    Information technology creates the enabling infrastructure for research in all fields of science and engineering, and computing research is finding rewarding partnerships with other disciplines. In the field of biotechnology, for instance, not only are sophisticated information systems critical to research in that field, but computer scientists and biotechnologists are finding vital new areas of collaboration in drug design, in studying the mechanisms of protein folding, and in understanding how the genetic structures work to create life. Computers are also used by researchers for modeling and simulation, graphic presentation of results, controlling lab equipment, storing and retrieving scientific literature, and sharing research results.

    Computing research is also critical to solving issues that have arisen because of the information revolution. The recent report of the Commission on Critical Infrastructures argues that, as the nation becomes increasingly dependent on information systems, it becomes increasingly vulnerable to the failure of those systems, either by accident or deliberate action. The report properly calls for increased research in computer and communications security (and NSF intends to boost its funding of research in that area). But it is important to understand that fundamental computing research in areas such as software engineering and systems architecture will be vital to building the robust and highly complex systems we are now beginning to imagine as possible.

    I should say a few words about the role of the academic research institutions in providing highly trained information professionals to work in this high tech economy we are growing. We have all seen projections of demand for information workers, some predicting shortages as high as several hundred thousand workers. We also know that there is debate over the accuracy of those predictions; human resource supply and demand are notoriously difficult to measure with any precision. CRA will be undertaking its own assessment of the demand for information workers as it pertains to academic computer science and engineering programs. I am chairing that effort, and we expect to have a report by next spring.

    However, we can say some things now with certainty.

    • As information technology becomes increasingly critical to all sectors of our society, the demand for professionals with technological skills must necessarily continue to grow. To the extent that economic growth depends on a constant stream of innovation from both users and suppliers, the lack of trained professionals will serve as a drag on the economy and prevent us from sustaining leadership.

    • At best, academic computer science and engineering departments provide only a small fraction of these people. We only graduate a few tens of thousands of majors at the bachelor's level, while industry claims to need hundreds of thousands. However, many of these jobs, although labeled as "information worker" positions (or even as "computer scientists"), are not intended to be filled by our computer science and engineering graduates. Rather, they are filled by people with computing skills who are experienced and trained in other areas, but who often have taken courses in a computer science department.

    • However, the computer science and engineering graduates at all levels that we do produce generally fill positions at the technological leading edge, and thus fill a very important component of the job market. Our departments are also increasingly called upon to provide service courses and to offer minors in computer science that are combined with majors in a variety of other fields--from medicine, to performing arts, to business.

    • NSF research and education support is vital to sustaining this flow of highly trained experts, particularly at the high end.

  2. The best is yet to come.

    As spectacular as the rapid growth in information technology has been, we are really at the early stages of reaping the full rewards of past research investments. Advances in data communications technology, such as low-cost wireless systems and very-high-speed Internet technology, coupled with the continuing 50 percent per year improvement in cost performance of processor and memory technology and advances in software and systems engineering, mean that we will be able to realize applications we could only dream about just a few years ago. Information technology is not only providing new tools with which to do our work, but it is fundamentally transforming the nature of that work.

    Yet this promise calls for more, not less, investment in fundamental research on information technology if we are to build systems that are safe, reliable, efficient, and useable. In its Digital Library Initiative, for example, NSF is undertaking major new explorations of how information technology is transforming the very process by which researchers and educators collect knowledge, store it, transform it, store it, and transfer it to others. Digital technology will change the basic way scientists interact with information and with each other. The Digital Library Initiative is intended to fund major research projects to develop the tools necessary to understand and manage that change.

  3. NSF plays a crucial role in support of academic computing research in the United States.

    For the past 30 years, NSF has been the principal civilian agency responsible for the health of academic computer science and engineering in the United States. Together with DARPA, which has a more mission-oriented charter on the defense side, NSF has overseen the growth of this field to world leadership. Of course, many other agencies--notably NASA, the Department of Energy, and NIH--contribute to the support of fundamental computing research. These efforts are important but supplemental, however, and are governed by their agency missions rather than concerns for the overall health of the field.

    Thus, as the field grows in size and national importance, it is vital that the programs of research support in NSF grow proportionately. Such has not been the case in recent years. Due to budget pressures, we have considered ourselves fortunate indeed to have simply held our own--thanks in no small part to the efforts of this committee! But now we need to resume rapid growth. CS is working from a small base because it was, historically, late in emerging as a discipline and late in obtaining federal funding. NSF, for example, did not open an office for computing activities until 1967, 15 years after NSF began funding more traditional scientific fields. Hence larger increases are justifiable than in other scientific fields.

    We applaud the proposed 16 percent increase in the CISE budget, and we are particularly pleased to see that NSF estimates that, within CISE, research expenditures will increase by 19 percent. This is a very important and fully warranted increase, especially since, as we said above, all other fields supported by NSF will themselves benefit from this increased level of effort.

    I would add, however, that to have real impact these levels of increases, for both NSF in general and computing research in particular, need to be sustained over the longer term. We are still a young and rapidly growing field. We have surely demonstrated our promise, but, to repeat one of my earlier points, the best is yet to come!

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Document last modified on Wednesday, 04-Apr-2012 06:51:14 PDT.