William A. Wulf
President, National Academy of Engineering
Submitted to the
Subcommittee on Basic Research
Committee on Science
U. S. House of Representatives
October 6, 1998
I appreciate the opportunity to present a prepared statement since I am unable to testify in person. The topic of today’s hearing, funding for information technology (IT) research, is of critical national importance and one in which I have personally been involved for many years. I currently serve as the President of the National Academy of Engineering, on leave from my position as AT&T Professor of Engineer and Applied Science in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Virginia. Between 1988-90 I also took leave from my university position to serve as the Assistant Director of the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering. While there, I was deeply involved in the operation of NSFnet, development of the High Performance Computing and Communications initiative and participated in initial discussions about government’s role in developing the National Information Infrastructure. Prior to that I founded and ran a software company, Tartan Laboratories, that grew out of research done while I was a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. I also served for several years as Chair of the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board (CSTB) of the National Research Council, which has been responsible for producing many important studies relevant to today’s hearing.
I want to applaud the work of the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC) for highlighting the importance of federal funding for computing and communications research and for emphasizing the need to sustain long term research support. Given the success of the information technology industry today, it is easy to forget the critical role played by federal government investments in computing and communications research in laying the foundation for the information age. While the focus of the interim report is on the federal government, I believe it is important to recognize the complimentary roles played by industry and universities in fueling the information technology enterprise. University-industry interactions have been instrumental in fostering new developments in computing and communications. As the figure below shows, industry has successfully leveraged federal investments so that the benefits of government dollars are multiplied substantially.
A soon to be released CSTB report, entitled Funding a Revolution: Government Support of Computing Research, provides further evidence of the importance of federal research support in the development of computing and networking technologies. For example, the report traces advances in relational database technology, which laid the foundation for today’s billion dollar database industry. The university researchers who pioneered relational database technology received complimentary support from government and industry. When industry decided not to continue development of the technology, support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) enabled new advances to be made, thus stimulating further commercial interest.
The Internet serves as another highly visible example of how government sponsored research and deployment of new technology on an experimental basis has had vast benefits for society and has fueled considerable economic growth. Beginning in the 1960s, government supported individual researchers who developed the underlying technologies, such as routing protocols and packet switching, that made the Internet possible. Later, the experimental ARPANET, which had been developed with funding from the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), was expanded to permit more connections and new applications. The NSF became involved in network infrastructure to support university computer science researchers and ultimately took charge of the non-defense high speed backbone network---the NSFnet. By the mid 1990’s, commercial development enabled NSF to turn over responsibility for the backbone to the private sector and concentrate its efforts on supporting high end networking for scientific researchers.
Even the development of the personal computer (PC), which primarily resulted from industry investments, benefited in certain critical ways from government support. In the 1960s, ARPA and NASA provided funding for work on improving human-computer interfaces that resulted in an experimental computerized office system that made use of a mouse and windows. These concepts were later incorporated into commercial designs for personal computers and remain some of the key components of today’s computers that contribute to their widespread use in society.
The above examples demonstrate that government funding has played a vital role in seeding the information technology industry. Federal funding also has been instrumental in creating the human resources that drive the innovation process. Without this support the considerable progress we see today would not have been realized.
Beyond the production of a vital information technology industry, however, it is important to recognize the leveraging effect of IT to all fields of research. Computing and networking technologies are fundamental to achieving advances in biotechnology, atmospheric research, manufacturing, and other research endeavors. Almost all disciplines today rely on information technology for advancing knowledge in their field and enabling scientists to collaborate remotely on common research projects. As a result, government funding for information technology research further leverages the approximately $80 billion federal investment in research and development.
One of the most important conclusions of the interim PITAC report is the need to rebalance investments between short and long term research. While it is valuable to ensure that some research efforts produce more immediate applications of results, it is essential that a longer term focus not be lost. Technological development continues at a rapid pace that quickly approaches the limits of our understanding. Fundamental research is needed to discover new concepts upon which future generations of computers and systems will be based. Without discoveries that aim farther into the future and answer basic questions in computer science and engineering , the current rate of innovation cannot be maintained. Researchers also need to have access to cutting edge technology that enables them to explore new approaches and applications. Deploying these applications presents new challenges for basic computer science research that necessitates additional long term effort. For example, the expansion of the Internet has raised new questions about scaleable information infrastructure that can be answered only through additional research. Information technology is a field that continually reinvents itself and likewise, the application of IT continues to transform the world around us. Sustaining these developments requires renewed attention to funding
the kind of research that produced today’s successes.
The interim PITAC report emphasizes the importance of advancing several key areas--software research, scaleable information infrastructure, high-end computing, and socio-economic and workforce impacts. I concur that there is a strong need for support in all of these areas and that it is essential to have a portfolio of research topics that span the broad array of problems confronting computing and communications research. Concerns about software development lagging behind the hardware base are well founded and require considerable attention. Advancing the state of software design is a key component that cuts across many critical areas and thus deserves special attention. It is imperative that the nation not simply invest in bigger and faster hardware, but also in the accompanying software that can capitalize on these capabilities. When I was involved in the High Performance Computing and Communications initiative, we tried to balance hardware with applications, basic research, and development of human resources. In order to achieve overall progress government initiatives must ensure support for all of these elements.
While the areas highlighted in the interim PITAC report all warrant increased attention, there also are other examples of topics that will require fundamental research. One is information systems security and reliability. Last week, the CSTB released a new study entitled, Trust in Cyberspace, which emphasizes the need for long term research to address the lack of trustworthiness in our networked information systems. The study committee found that existing networks are vulnerable to attack and failure and that a science and technology base needs to be developed for building trustworthy systems. As society increasingly depends on networks to support critical infrastructures and vital services, it is essential that research into the fundamental underpinnings of what constitutes reliable and secure systems be supported. New approaches must be pursued to understand how networked information systems comprised of disparate components from a variety of sources can be integrated and tested to ensure that they work as intended and cannot be compromised.
New applications will also generate important research questions. Many of the high visibility applications of IT currently are in the sciences and they deserve continued support. But the humanities offer a new opportunity to explore how information technology can be employed in fundamentally different ways that will provide fresh insights and enrich research in other applications. Effectively representing and enhancing an understanding of the human record presents an interesting challenge to information technology research. In addition, attention must be paid to how to archive digital materials and preserve them for the future. What is required is not only research into technologies that will assist in maintaining digital material over time, but also the creation of an infrastructure that will support digital archives. Absent these developments, the loss of valuable material--in the sciences, humanities, and government--will not be prevented. While there are short term strategies for dealing with existing digital material, long term research is needed to establish new approaches for maintaining access to digital information for future generations.
Some of the research required to make progress in these areas will benefit from different modes of support and I agree with the interim PITAC report’s call for new models of funding. At the same time, it is critical that agencies not be constrained in their ability to support research through a variety of mechanisms, including those that have worked successfully for many years.
I endorse the PITAC report’s forceful call for sustained federal support for high-risk research that may not have immediate---but rather long term--benefits. The investments already made by the U.S. Government have yielded an enormous rate of return for the nation. As the information age matures, the need to maintain that investment and further enhance support for advancing fundamental knowledge in computing and communications technologies remains essential. The next phase of the information revolution is likely to accrue even greater benefits, but those benefits will not be realized unless the federal government is committed to supporting research into fundamental problems in computing and communications.