Clinton Shows NSF the Money Now, How to Spend It?

Clinton Shows NSF the Money Now, How to Spend It?

Ruzena Bajcsy

By Steve LeSueur, Staff Writer

The National Science Foundation wants to expand government-supported research into information technology by partnering with other federal agencies, such as NASA and the National Institutes of Health, whose own research requires advanced computer speeds and performance.

President Clinton's fiscal 2001 budget, released Feb. 7, provides $327 million for the IT research initiative administered by the NSF, a whopping 160 percent increase over the $126 million appropriated by Congress last year.

But NSF officials said the program, begun last year, already has been inundated with more than 2,000 proposals totaling billions of dollars in requested funding.

"We don't have enough money to do everything," said Ruzena Bajcsy, assistant director for the foundation's computer information science and engineering directorate. NSF officials are holding "high-level discussions" with officials from NASA and the National Institutes of Health to see if they can jointly sponsor IT research projects that are mutually beneficial, she said.

Both agencies are conducting research that requires improved computer capabilities. NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, for example, is collecting an enormous amount of data that must be stored and organized. Similarly, NIH's ambitious human genome project to map the entire genetic script, approximately 100,000 human genes and 3 billion bits of information, needs improved search techniques to understand the data.

"We are interested in using biomedical problems as a basis for pushing information technology advances," said Bajcsy.

While it is difficult to put a precise figure on spending by the federal government on all IT research, White House budget documents suggest that as much as $2.3 billion could be spent in 2000. The budget, for example, proposes $497 million for a new National Nanotechnology Initiative that could lead to breakthroughs such as molecular computers that can store the contents of the Library of Congress in a device the size of a sugar cube.

The NSF, as the lead agency for IT research, hopes to piggyback off some of these other agency projects, said Bajcsy.

Federally funded IT research is strongly supported by the technology industry, said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, an Arlington, Va., lobbying group representing more than 11,000 businesses. He said that in past years, the bulk of federal research funds have gone into biomedical research under "the incorrect assumption that the IT industry could fund the research on its own."

But IT companies struggling to survive in today's highly competitive market cannot afford to divert revenue to long-term research, said George Strawn, executive director for the NSF's computer and information science and engineering directorate. The payoff for such research could take 10 to 20 years, and the breakthroughs that would occur likely would become public knowledge, thus providing no competitive advantage for companies sponsoring the research.

Consequently, "either the research gets funded by the government, or it doesn't get done," said Strawn.

The public benefits can be enormous. NSF officials point out that in the early 1990s, students working under the direction of senior researchers at NSF's supercomputing center helped create the first Web browser, triggering an economic explosion that few could have foreseen.

"Research is among the most strongly leveraged investments government makes," said Strawn.

The IT research initiative began last year following a February 1999 report by the president's Information Technology Advisory Committee. The committee, which consists of university scholars and industry leaders, said the boom in information technology was built on research in computer science begun during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations.

But it noted the United States could lose its lead in information and computer technologies if federal funding for long-term IT research is not increased significantly.

The committee recommended a five-year research effort into creating faster, more powerful computing systems, improving software, creating an IT infrastructure that is reliable, secure and can handle increasing numbers of users and data, and examining the socioeconomic impact of computers and technology.

President Clinton responded by proposing $366 million in the fiscal 2000 budget for the Information Technology for the Twenty-First Century initiative, also known as IT2, including $146 million for the NSF to lead in the multiagency research effort. The NSF, based in Arlington, is an independent federal agency that funds research and education in science and engineering, primarily through grants to universities and research institutions.

Congress approved $126 million of the requested funding for NSF and also put its own stamp on the program, including changing the name to the IT research initiative.

The 2000 program set aside $36 million for a terascale computing system in support of U.S. science and engineering research and $90 million for other research efforts. Grants likely will be awarded in the fall, said NSF officials.

Of the $327 million requested for 2001, $45 million has been designated for the terascale project to create a supercomputer that can perform up to 5 trillion operations per second, which would make it one of the world's fastest computers.

Some of the funding will be aimed at training workers, enlarging the community of skilled computer users and examining the socioeconomic implications of new technology. The NSF, for example, wants to spread its grants to as many universities as possible to help boost IT research and education throughout the nation.

"We cannot forget that brains are not only in Palo Alto and Boston," said Bajcsy. "We really have to be very conscious of this digital divide."

Steven Dorfman, a member of the advisory committee whose recommendations spurred the new program, said he is very pleased with the president's proposed increases. "It really does build for the future and will benefit all," said Dorfman, who is a retired vice chairman for Hughes Electronics Corp. of El Segundo, Calif.

NSF and industry officials are hopeful that the IT research initiative will receive relatively swift approval from Congress during this second budget go-around. Last year, some questioned whether the NSF leadership would be too conservative in its approach to innovative IT research.

In addition, political observers said the Republican-dominated Congress hesitated to endorse a program that could give Vice President Al Gore, a Democratic presidential candidate, too much reflected glory. Hence, Congress gave the initiative its own name.

But NSF officials said the enthusiastic response to the initiative provides them with persuasive evidence of its value.

"Information technology research is as close as you're ever going to come to a bipartisan issue in this town. Fortunately, there are mechanisms for everyone to get due credit," said Strawn.

Miller agreed. "Our hope is that the program will be decided objectively by Congress with input from industry," he said.

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