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January 09, 2006

PCAST to get NITRD Brief

The first meeting of the President's Council of Advisors for Science and Technology (PCAST) since the committee absorbed the functions of the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC) last October 1st will be held tomorrow in Washington, DC. The committee will hear for the first time in detail about the Networking and Information Technology R&D program -- the $2 billion per year, multi-agency program that constitutes the federal IT R&D effort. Simon Szykman, who now runs the National Coordinating Office for IT R&D and oversees the NITRD effort, will spend 90 minutes providing an overview of the NITRD program for the committee -- though the President hasn't yet named the additional members to the committee he authorized "to buttress PCAST's Information Technology (IT) assessment functions."

You'll recall when the news first broke that the President was consolidating PITAC's function under PCAST, I was decidedly mixed about it, but leaning towards the positive. The move was spun in Administration press releases as an "elevation" of IT policy issues -- and indeed, the membership of PCAST is august and influential. However my concern then was that the charter of PCAST was becoming too broad for the committee to really spend the time to evaluate the federal IT R&D portfolio in sufficient depth.

Having thought about it a bit more, I'm much less optimistic now than I was then. I really don't think PCAST can serve as PITAC in the way Congress intended. Congress established what would become PITAC in the High Performance Computing Act of 1991 (with some additional responsibilities added in the Next Generation Internet Act of 1998), so that an independent panel filled with experts from industry and academia would review the whole of the federal effort every two years and provide guidance to Congress and the President. In fact, here's what the statute says:

The President shall establish an advisory committee on high-performance computing consisting of non-Federal members, including representatives of the research, education, and library communities, network providers, and industry, who are specially qualified to provide the Director [of the Office of Science and Technology Policy] with advice and information on high-performance computing. The recommendations of the advisory committee shall be considered in reviewing and revising the Program.

The advisory committee shall provide the Director with an independent assessment of--
(1) progress made in implementing the Program;
(2) the need to revise the Program;
(3) the balance between the components of the Program;
(4) whether the research and development undertaken pursuant to the Program is helping to maintain United States leadership in computing technology; and
(5) other issues identified by the Director.

Unfortunately, PITAC hasn't really met the intent of the statute since the committee released its 1999 report "Investing in Our Future," a report which found that the US was woefully underinvested in IT R&D, especially given the "spectacular" return on investment that research produced. The most recent incarnation of an independent PITAC, while of suitable composition, was hamstrung by a charter from OSTP that led them to consider only three small subsections of the overall IT R&D portfolio -- health and IT, cybersecurity R&D, and computational science. While the committee produced three excellent reports on the topics, as soon as it became clear the committee was prepared to act on their statutory responsibility to consider the state of the overall federal IT R&D program as the previous PITAC had done, their charter was allowed to expire and the committee was disbanded.

Instead, the Administration has subsumed PITAC under PCAST, which has become a one-stop shop for science advisory committees. Since it's re-chartering in 2001, the committee of 24 has produced reports on Energy Efficiency, Building Out Broadband, Assessing the U.S. R&D Investment, Maximizing the Contribution of Science and Technology Within the Department of Homeland Security, The S&T of Combating Terrorism, Technology Transfer, Science and Engineering Capabilities, IT Manufacturing and Competitiveness, and most recently, under their role as the National Nanotechnology Advisory Panel (another Congressionally-chartered panel whose responsibilities have been turned over to PCAST), The National Nanotechnology Initiative at Five Years: Assessment and Recommendations of the National Nanotechnology Advisory Panel.

So, they've been busy. Even if the President does make timely appointments of additional members, it's not clear to me that the members of PCAST will have anywhere near the time to delve into the issues of most concern to the community in anywhere near sufficient depth. (PCAST intends to devote 90 minutes of tomorrow's 8 hour meeting to IT issues, splitting the rest of the time with sessions on nanotechnology (20 minutes), US-China S&T (60 minutes), and 3 hours of Advanced Energy Technologies.) Instead, it's likely the committee will adopt the "technical advisory group" (TAG) approach, naming 50 "government and private sector" scientists to assist the members of PCAST carry out their PITAC responsibilities.

It's hard to reconcile this approach -- a large TAG comprised of government and private sector IT experts (though probably not of comparable stature to even the previous incarnation of PITAC), reporting up to a PCAST whose IT-oriented members are in the decided minority -- with the intent of Congress in chartering an independent advisory committee staffed with some of the most-respected members of the field, focused solely on IT R&D. So, given that, and the fact that we're now in the fourth month after the President's order and no new members to the PCAST have been named, despite the fact that the committee is moving forward...well, color me pessimistic. For now, anyway.

In any case, I'll be at tomorrow's meeting and will have all the details. Maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised.

Update: (Jan 11) -- No big surprises, unfortunately. OSTP Director John Marburger (who serves as co-chair of PCAST) noted that the committee will be expanded to accommodate the additional expertise required to take on the PITAC role, but that no new members were ready to be named yet ("in process," he said). They decided to tape the proceedings and will make a copy for the new members to help bring them "up to speed."

Simon Szykman gave a good overall presentation of the history of NITRD and PITAC and made the case that it was time for another focus on taking an overall look at NITRD, similar to the "Investing in Our Future" report by PITAC in 1999 (which led to structural and budgetary changes in the program) -- as opposed to the narrower focus of the previous PITAC.

PCAST was in general agreement that that's the sort of study that's required, and Marburger seemed to agree.

So in that sense, I'm pleased. The committee seemed very engaged, though the audio was awful in the room so it wasn't always possible to hear everyone's contribution. There was a lot of talk about the committee needing to figure out a way to assess the state of the US leadership in IT. Also some question about whether the NITRD Interagency Working Group prioritizes research areas within IT, or just reacts to what the agencies are already doing. PCAST Member (and former NSF Director) Eric Bloch wanted to know if the NITRD IWG was the group that originates IT strategy or is it just "a recording group" for strategies upon which the agencies have already decided. "This question of originating the strategy versus recording is an issue we need to get into."

If the committee stays this engaged in the process, they could produce a very valuable report. Much will depend on how much work they turn over to the TAG, I suppose, and the level of engagement the TAG membership brings to the issues. One possible warning sign came during the update on the committee's nanotech advisory efforts. PCAST Executive Director Celia Merzbacher reported slightly disappointing response rates from the nanotech TAG to some issues of concern from PCAST -- something like only 17 responses out of 40 or 50 TAG members. But that's probably just the hazard of working with large groups of busy people.

Anyway, I was encouraged by the emphasis on the scope of the review. This PCAST has a lot on their plate, but they're certainly looking at the issue at the right level I think. We'll see how things move forward as the President starts appointing new members.

Aliya Sternstein of Federal Computer Week, has more coverage of yesterday's meeting.

Posted by PeterHarsha at January 9, 2006 11:50 PM
Posted to Policy