Future Value

Government funding enables research into long-range tech issues

For many people who make a living on technology, the last couple of years have been like a long night of bar-hopping in which some mysterious benefactor ordered round after round, then slipped out the door without paying the tab.

The bill was high and the hangover unbearable, but even worse was the loss of a tremendous sense of unlimited opportunity.

But one segment of the information technology (IT) community thinks those days of opportunity will return: researchers and research managers, the thinkers who spend their lives looking at the long view.

Not that they downplay the losses of the current economy. Rather, they speak with a certainty that opportunities are in the making. The benefactor, in this case, is Congress, which is investing more than a half-billion dollars per year in IT research through the National Science Foundation.

"After only 50 years, were just at the leading edge of the information revolution," said George O. Strawn, executive officer of the Directorate for Computer and Information Sciences and Engineering at the NSF. "Were just having the normal shakeout with technology, and a lot of people are going to make a lot more money."

The recent boon in government research dollars resulted from a commission appointed by President Bill Clinton that in 1999 recommended that backing for IT research through NSF be increased substantially over five years. For the first two years, the funding did increase considerably — from $495.2 million in 2000 to $641 million in 2001.

That rapidly accelerating rate of funding has stalled with the Bush administrations proposed budget, with $642.6 million proposed for the fiscal year 2002 — just $1.6 million more than the previous year.

Its a boon, nevertheless, and one that came just in time. Congress is now picking up the tab for substantial research at universities at the same time that many industrial labs are scaling back their projects.

The investment is good for more than just the researchers. Historically, when government has invested in civilian IT research, important discoveries have resulted, ranging from the Google search engine to the Internet itself, which was supported by the NSF for communication among scientists in the days after the ARPANet and before the modern Internet.

"If you look at the totality of the NSF, there are an awful lot of commercial spin-offs," said Michael Lesk, division director of Information and Intelligent Systems at the NSF.

The presidential commission that recommended the research windfall was made up of university professors, executives and researchers from companies including Microsoft and Sun Microsystems. Not surprisingly, the panel recommended that the government back long-term, high-risk projects, because short-term economic pressures prevent industry from exploring risky areas.

"The nation needs significant new research on computing and communication systems," the report said. "This research will help sustain the economic boom in information technology, address important societal problems such as education and crisis management and protect us from catastrophic failures of the complex systems that now underpin our transportation, defense, business, finance and health care infrastructures."

The priorities that emerged: designing reliable software, learning to manage large quantities of data and building a billion-node Internet.

Pet Projects

Hundreds of projects have received backing since then, with names such as Open Source Quality Project, A Petabyte in Your Pocket, Taming the Data Flood: Systems That Evolve, Are Available and Maintainable and lots of algorithm research.

Ian Foster serves as co-leader at the IT project that receives the largest amount of funding from NSF. The Grid Physics Network, also known as GriPhyN, is receiving $11.9 million to create a computer data grid with "unprecedented speed and power," according to the press release on the project.

The funding is "at a scale where you can start to do some interesting things," says Foster, a professor of computer science at the University of Chicago and associate director at the Argonne National Laboratory.

The network is being designed to accommodate research from four projects in physics and astronomy, on a scale that allows the scientists to analyze vast amounts of shared data. One group, for example, will study the gravitational waves of pulsars and supernovas. Hundreds of scientists throughout the U.S. and Europe will be involved in designing the grid or in the experiments that take place on it.

The implications of creating this kind of computing power have attracted interest from many quarters.

"Often the returns are not the things they thought they were investing in when they started," Foster says. "Were seeing a lot of interest from industry."

Its not surprising that the business community is watching.

Managers such as the NSFs Strawn and Stephen Rattien, director of science and technology at research group Rand, describe a future full of technological marvels: software that simulates the workings of the human body, so that new drugs, represented as smaller pieces of software, can be tested for reactions; machines that process a quadrillion instructions per second; exotic computing on DNA; smart freeways that pick up cars, group them, guide them electronically and drop them off at the proper exits; and nanotechnology that allows a small gauge to be injected into the bloodstream to monitor a diabetics insulin levels.

Research being conducted now could result in developments such as these in 10 or 20 years.

Of course, another thriving area of research is into the social and economic implications of these discoveries. Rand, in Santa Monica, Calif., has devoted research to the social questions behind technological advancement for years.

Rands recent projects include projecting what the world will be like in 25 years for the Department of Energy; studying how technology can improve police work for the Department of Justice; and organizing international conferences of computer scientists, defense planners and policy analysts to chart the course of the information revolution to determine its effects on governance.

When considering the social aspects of technological advancement, the question that arises time and again centers on the state of privacy for individuals in a world in which each individual generates a sea of data.

"Were well-aware of cases in which criminals slip through the cracks. But do we really want any police officer anywhere in the country to pull up everything everybody ever did?" Rattien says. "These issues need a lot more public dialogue. What we are capable of doing and what we really want as a society have not been fully resolved. What we are legally able to do and what we want to do have not been fully resolved."

If anything slows down the commercial spin-offs of current research, it will be questions such as these. Nonetheless, Rattien says, the opportunities for the IT sector will continue to grow, and the experience of the last couple of years will play out much like the California Gold Rush.

"San Francisco is still a city," Rattien says. "Levi Strauss [& Co.] is still making blue jeans. But no, were not mining gold in Northern California now."

The NSFs Lesk says that as the fortunes of the private sector fluctuate, a robust university research system lends stability to the progress in technology. "The important thing is that the technical progress is still going," he says.