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December 15, 2005

IT Companies Step Up Where DARPA Steps Back

Some good coverage in the press of an announcement today by Google, Microsoft and Sun that they'll help jointly fund (to the tune of $1.5 million a year for five years) Dave Patterson's new Reliable, Adaptive, and Distributed systems Lab (RAD Lab) at UC Berkeley.

Both the NY Times and San Jose Mercury News note the DARPA angle to the story -- namely, that as DARPA has pulled away from funding university-led research in computer science over the last several years in favor of shorter-term, typically classified efforts (a fact we've detailed pretty extensively on this blog), other agencies haven't stepped up to fill the gap, leaving university researchers to scramble for funding. This has put significant pressure on NSF, as formerly DARPA-funded researchers turn to the Foundation for support, and the agency is feeling the strain.

Here's how the NY Times covers it:

Mr. Patterson, currently the president of the Association for Computing Machinery, a national technical organization, has recently been a vocal critic of the shift of basic research funds away from universities and toward military contractors.

"We're trying to sustain the broad vision, high-risk and high-reward research model," Mr. Patterson said of the new Berkeley effort.

The Berkeley researchers began looking for industry support last year when they realized that the Pentagon Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as Darpa, was withdrawing support for basic research at the university, he said.

In a memorandum submitted to a Congressional committee earlier this year, Darpa officials disclosed that its spending on basic computer science research at universities had declined by 5 percent between 2003 and 2004. Government officials and corporate research executives noted the indirect effects of the changes in federal research support over the last five years.

"When funding gets tight, both researchers and funders become increasingly risk-averse," said William Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering.

I'm not sure where the "declined by 5 percent between 2003 and 2004" figure comes from. DARPA told the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year the drop was much more precipitous:

DARPA Total Comp Sci Funding vs. University Comp Sci Funding
(in millions)
FY 2001
FY 2002
FY 2003
FY 2004
Total Comp Science$546$571$613$583
University Funding$214$207$173$123

The Merc got it right:

The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been one of the key financial backers of computer science research at universities. But DARPA's university funding dropped from $214 million in 2001 to $123 million in 2004, as the agency shifted its focus to classified research that favors military contractors.

The drop in funding comes as computer science research is expanding.

Anyway, in Patterson's case, his group was able to make the case to three of the industry's giants that support for university research in the RAD Lab's focus area is in their best interest and secured a significant commitment from each one. While this is fantastic news for Patterson and his colleagues at Berkeley (and sure to reap big benefits for the three industry partners, as well as the rest of the industry -- that's the nature of university-led research), this is unlikely to be a model that scales very well across the country.

"There are only two or three companies with pockets that deep,'' said Phil Bernstein, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research and treasurer of the Computing Research Association. "There just aren't that many big companies, and a lot of them don't do research. There aren't a lot of doors to knock on.''
So well-deserved kudos to Google, Microsoft and Sun (all members of CRA, by the way) for recognizing the value of university-led research and stepping up at a time when federal funding is in flux.

Posted by PeterHarsha at December 15, 2005 10:18 AM
Posted to R&D in the Press