This article is published in the January 2012 issue.

Computing Researchers Get ‘Schooled’ on Science Policy at CCC Workshop


As part of its mission to develop a next generation of leaders in the computing research community, the Computing Research Association’s Computing Community Consortium recently held its inaugural Leadership in Science Policy Institute (LiSPI).

This one-day workshop was intended to educate a small cadre of computing researchers on how science policy in the U.S. is formulated and how our government works. Participants heard candid and “off-the-record” views from people who do it or have done it. Thirty-four computer scientists and engineers from twenty-five different universities and research organizations attended the November 7, 2011 workshop.

The workshop offered sessions on: interacting with Federal science agencies, how new initiatives are created within agencies, the role of Federal advisory committees, the Federal budget process, the arguments for supporting research in computing, how to talk to policymakers, and a rather candid discussion from two staffers on the House Science, Space and Technology committee. LiSPI participants were required to complete both pre- and post-workshop homework assignments.

LiSPI co-organizer Fred Schneider started the day by outlining the goals of the workshop. Participants then heard from representatives of three key science agencies: Jeannette Wing, former Assistant Director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering at the National Science Foundation; Milton Corn, from the National Institutes of Health; and Henry Kelly, from the Department of Energy. This panel explained that influencing policy decisions at a Federal agency involves a somewhat different skill set and approach than influencing faculty peers, the Congress, or the White House. Later one participant remarked:

The panelists also discussed how agencies provide opportunities for researchers to shape Federal policy in their fields-by serving on advisory committees and by taking rotations as program managers, division directors or office directors. The three panelists also discussed how new agency initiatives get started, focusing on the culture and traditions that create the lens through which agencies view themselves and are viewed by others.

In the next session, Edward Lazowska, Chair of CCC, and Herb Lin, from the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board of the National Research Council, described the role and dynamics of advisory committees that are found at nearly every level of the Federal government. The speakers discussed how those committees work (in theory and practice), why they sometimes do not work, how members are chosen, and who they are intended to influence (as well as who they actually influence). Lazowska has served on a multitude of Federal committees, and Lin has run dozens of studies for CSTB, so these speakers were particularly well qualified to discuss how issues get raised and vetted, how outcomes get finalized and disseminated, how committees do their jobs, and how members of the community can be effective when serving on these committees.

LiSPI participants then heard two tutorials: one on the Federal budget process by R&D budget “guru” (and Assistant Director for Federal Research and Development for the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy) Kei Koizumi; and one on “Making a Federal Case for Computing” from CRA Director of Government Affairs (and LiSPI co-organizer) Peter Harsha. Koizumi walked the audience through the mechanics of the Federal budget process, including key milestones and inflection points in the process. He also explained impacts of the congressional debt relief “supercommittee” (still in session then) on Federal science budgets in the future. Harsha focused on the case that the computing community makes to justify taxpayer dollars in support of research. One participant noted:

Practical advice on “Having the Conversation” with policymakers was offered by a former congressional staffer and current member of the Microsoft Technology Policy Group, Elizabeth Grossman. Grossman described how policymakers approach meetings with researchers and how researchers might be best prepared to provide useful input. She also had participants work in small groups to craft statements about their own research area; a few volunteers then presented their statements which led to discussion and feedback. As noted by an attendee:

To work with staff means to respect and value not just their autonomy and
ability to move legislation forward, but also their time. Most meetings in DC
with staff will at best be 15 minutes long . . . .”

Current congressional staff members Dan Byers, from the House Science, Space and Technology committee majority, and Dahlia Sokolov, from the committee’s minority staff, took to the podium to describe the unique difficulties of communicating the value of research to our elected officials and the difficulties of prioritizing science investments in the current political and fiscal climate. Both Byers and Sokolov spoke candidly about challenges they face in an increasingly polarized Congress, noting that the Science committee is not immune from the increasing partisanship.

Schneider concluded the workshop with a session about serving as a witness at a congressional hearing. He played video-taped highlights from a recent hearing on the Federal Networking and Information Technology R&D (NITRD) program. To start, participants viewed the opening five-minute statements from CCC’s Lazowska and Bob Sproull (formerly director of research at of Oracle Labs)-each presenting a “case for funding computing research.” Schneider then played two questions that Members of Congress put to the witnesses during the hearing. Chairman Mo Brooks (R-AL) asked how to justify increased NITRD funding given today’s budget climate, and Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) asked how to justify increased IT investment given its small effect on balance of trade. Participants were asked to craft 30-second answers to both questions as their “final exam” for the day.

In the view of one of the researchers attending, “It’s not that anyone needs
to spend a lot of time in Washington, but in order to be effective, spending
the right time in Washington is crucial.

The feedback from all of the participants was quite positive. For CRN readers interested in details about what was presented, slides from the speakers are posted on the web (https://turing.cra.org/ccc/spi_agenda.php). Moreover, chances are quite good that CRA will seek to put on similar programs in the future, since there is an acute need to develop a community of computer scientists who can participate in science policy. If you would like to be considered for participation in those programs, keep an eye on the Computing Research Policy Blog and the CCC Blog for an announcement.

Computing Researchers Get ‘Schooled’ on Science Policy at CCC Workshop