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CRA Testimony on FY 2000 Appropriations for the National Science Foundation

given by Edward Lazowska, Chair, Department of Computer Science & Engineering,
University of Washington, and Chair, Board of Directors, Computing Research Association

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

April 28, 1999

Good afternoon, Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee. Thank you very much for granting me this opportunity to comment on FY 2000 appropriations for the National Science Foundation. I am Edward Lazowska, Chair of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington and Chair of the Computing Research Association on whose behalf I am testifying today. CRA is an alliance of about 180 academic, industrial, and other organizations involved in computing research. I also chair the NSF Computer and Information Sciences and Engineering Advisory Committee, serve on the National Research Council's Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, and serve on the Technical Advisory Board for Microsoft Research. So I believe I can provide you with a broad and balanced perspective.

Today I would like to addressthe National Science Foundation's critical role in the new Information Technology for the 21st Century Initiative (aka IT2) and urge the subcommittee to fully fund the proposed FY 2000 activities at $146 million.The IT2 Initiative, as you know, is a six-agency effort to revitalize the federal investment in computing and communications research to ensure the U.S. economic lead in IT well into the 21st century and to enable technologies that meet public needs and objectives.

The initiative would implement the recommendations of an independent, Congressionally chartered panel, the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC). In the 1991 High Performance Computing legislation, Congress instructed the White House to appoint an expert advisory committee. In the 1998 Next Generation Internet legislation, Congress specifically directed the committee to report on the health of the nation's computing research program, on whether we are investing at a sufficient level to ensure our world leadership in information technology. The committee reported, and the White House has now responded to that report. This is not a White House initiative — it is the Administration's response to a committee that was responding to a Congressional directive.

The findings in the PITAC report are cause for alarm given the importance of information technology to our economy, to public infrastructure and government services, and to the advancement of science and engineering. The central message of the PITAC report deserves to be quoted:

We have an essential national interest in ensuring a continued flow of good new ideas in IT. After careful review of the Federal programs, however, this Committee has concluded that Federal support for research in information technology is dangerously inadequate.
PITAC stressed especially the need to expand support for long-term, broad-based IT research that generates new capabilities and innovations — the fuel of the information technology industry and of the information technology revolution. This is a concern that the computing research community has been raising for several years, expressed most thoroughly in CRA's 1997 report, Computing Research: A National Investment for Leadership in the 21st Century. The IT2 initiative is an excellent mechanism for redressing the underfunding of computing research, and the computing research community and the information technology industry wholeheartedly support it.

Let me now go into some more details on the key aspects of this initiative.

Why the Information Technology Initiative needs to be fully funded in FY 2000:

1. Information technology is critically important to the U.S. economy.

Almost overnight, information technologies have become ubiquitous throughout society — they're changing the way Americans live, work, and play. And they've become critical to our national economy. Information technologies industries:

2. The return on past research investments has been spectacular.

Federal investments in computing, information, and communications R&D over the past several decades have yielded spectacular returns, transforming many aspects of society and leveraging new products and services, even whole new industries, for the benefit of Americans as individuals, workers, citizens, and consumers. These investments have given rise to an impressive list of billion-dollar industries: the Internet, for instance, and high performance computers, RAID disks, multiprocessors, local area networks, and graphic displays.

For a more specific example, NSF's foresighted investments enabled researchers to develop the first hypertext systems in the 1960's. These systems were the forerunners of today's word-processing programs and web browsers. Computer graphics and high-quality rendering — which is the essence of computer animation, special effects, and photorealistic imagery of virtual environments — were also pioneered by NSF in conjunction with DOD. Before there was a market or a demand, these agencies invested in high-risk, high-potential research at North Carolina State University, Ohio State University, Cornell University, Caltech, and the University of Utah.

The payoff has been huge: computer graphics capabilities are revolutionizing the entertainment industry, an oft-cited example that obscures so many other productivity-enhancing applications of these technologies, such as those in transportation and manufacturing, where visualization is becoming increasingly crucial. They are also critical in medicine and national defense. Our pilots flying over Yugoslavia made extensive use of computer graphics in their training. And we've only scratched the surface of the potential of medical imaging applications.

3. Federal support has been and will continue to be crucial to progress in IT.

Many if not most IT technologies and the strength of U.S. IT industries stem from an extraordinarily fruitful long-term partnership among government, universities, and industry in research and development that has evolved over the last 50 years. The success — as well as the virtual explosion in the number of — IT companies that you hear about in the financial news every night are a direct result of investments made by federal agencies over the past decades, especially the National Science Foundation.

Long-term, fundamental research that generates new knowledge and capabilities — the bank of ideas from which the private sector draws — is a public good with diffuse benefits. The IT industry cannot be expected to conduct this kind of research. Given the intense pace of the IT marketplace, firms must devote the bulk of their R&D resources to shorter-term applied research and product development. The industrial representatives on PITAC explain why:

The information technology industry expends the bulk of its resources, both financial and human, on rapidly bringing products to market. Nearly every available person and dollar in this industry is focused on bringing the next version or the next product to market. Delivery product cycles are as short as every three to six months. The company that fails here misses the next short-term cycle and will not be successful.... For information technology companies, the fraction of the total budget devoted to R&D is roughly twice the U.S. industry average. Over 90 percent of information technology R&D expenditures are allocated to product development, with the major portion of the remaining expenditures going toward near term, applied research.
Put another way, I invest in companies not as a social good, but so that I'll be able to send my kids to college. The companies I invest in are the ones that are going to pay off within a few years. Fundamental research, though, is unpredictable, and when it does pay off, it pays off in 10-15 years. America's IT companies spend lots of money on R&D, but almost all of it is spent on D, on product engineering. Microsoft, for example, spends about 20% of its revenue on R&D, but only about 3% of this 20% on Microsoft Research. And this proportion is greater than the industry average.

Why the National Science Foundation must be central to the IT2 Initiative:

1. The NSF is the only agency responsible for all of science and engineering.

Mission agencies tend to spend their money applying today's computing technologies to solve today's problems that fall within their mission, and this is entirely appropriate. But it doesn't lay the necessary groundwork for the breakthroughs that will create tomorrow's computing technologies and prepare us to tackle tomorrow's problems — problems and approaches that we can't even imagine today.

The NSF's priorities under this initiative are directly responsive to the PITAC recommendations and various NSF advisory committees and expert panels. The NSF is identifying the critical research challenges that must be addressed to maintain progress in information technology into the 21st century and, in particular, to bring about:

2. The CISE Directorate is uniquely positioned to sustain IT2.

Computer scientists and computer engineers are the people who invent tomorrow's computing, who drive the field forward so that we will be ready to tackle tomorrow's problems. It's exciting that there is so much pressure to use today's computing — the fruits of yesterday's computing research — to solve problems in other fields of science and engineering. Computer scientists and computer engineers are proud to be successful tool-builders for the other fields of science and engineering. Partnerships between CISE researchers and researchers from the other NSF Directorates will be key to the success of the IT2 initiative for this reason, and also because knowledge of their current and future applications can help guide some of our research.

But the nation needs more than this. First, we need the breakthroughs in computing research that will create tomorrow's tools to tackle tomorrow's problems — breakthroughs that will power all of science and engineering forward. Second, computing impacts much more than science and engineering. Think about the transformations that computing is bringing about in all areas of our lives — in communication, information access, education, health care, electronic commerce, design and manufacturing, and government. We need to invest in computing research for all of these reasons too — not just because it is essential to other areas of science and engineering. Third, just like any other field of science, lots of computer science is highly speculative — when you pursue a question, you don't necessarily know what the payoff will be. We need to place some bets on the future; the potential payoff is enormous.

Looking across the entire Federal portfolio, even including money from this initiative, support for computing and communications research would still be less than half of what is spent on the physical sciences, and less than a fifth of what is spent on the life sciences.

In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, let me thank you for this subcommittee's longstanding support for the National Science Foundation and again urge you to fully fund the budget request that NSF has put forward, in particular the requested $146 million dollars to enable these important IT research activities. IT2 is a balanced, well-conceived initiative that is crucial to the future of the nation. Thank you very much for your time and attention. I would be pleased to answer any questions you might have.

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