This article is published in the March 2012 issue.

Symposium Marks 20 Years of Coordinated Federal Investment in Networking and IT R&D


Prospects for the Future

On Thursday, February 16, more than 150 Federal officials, Congressional staffers, academic researchers, and industry leaders packed a room overlooking the United States Capitol to mark two decades of coordinated Federal investment in networking and information technology research and development with a daylong symposium exploring progress and prospects in the field.  Complete materials from this extraordinary day-including videos, slides, and written summaries from nearly twenty 15-minute presentations by leaders of the field, plus a luncheon keynote by former Vice President Al Gore, a longtime champion of information technology R&D-are available on the web at: https://turing.cra.org/ccc/theimpactofnitrd.

Organized by the Computing Community Consortium, the symposium, titled ” The Impact of NITRD:  Two Decades of Game-Changing Breakthroughs in Networking and Information Technology-Expanding Possibilities Ahead,” marked 20 years of the Federal Government’s Networking and Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) Program. Chartered by Congress under the High-Performance Computing Act of 1991-legislation sponsored by then-Senator Gore-as well as the Next Generation Internet Research Act of 1998 and the America COMPETES Act of 2007, the NITRD Program is the oldest and largest of the small number of formal Federal programs that engage multiple agencies.

Originally comprising 8 agencies, today it provides a framework and mechanisms for coordination among 15 Federal agencies that support networking and information technology research and development. In particular, the program facilitates cooperation and coordination across a broad landscape, enabling these agencies to tackle the inherently multidisciplinary, multitechnology, and multisector challenges of today’s R&D horizons. The Program’s success in collaboration has come to be viewed as a model Federal R&D effort that leverages agencies’ strengths and avoids duplication.

The current co-chairs of the multiagency NITRD Subcommittee to the National Science and Technology Council’s (NSTC) Committee on Technology- George Strawn, the director of the National Coordination Office for NITRD, and Farnam Jahanian, Assistant Director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering at the National Science Foundation-kicked off the day. Jahanian described the information technology discovery and innovation ecosystem, emphasizing how advances in networking and information technology are the result of a complex public-private partnership spanning academia, industry, and government; how these investments have returned exceptional dividends to the nation; and how we need to constantly replenish the wellspring of new ideas and train new talent.

Jahanian, together with Jeannette Wing, President’s Professor of Computer Science and head of the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon University, helped set the stage for the day. Wing stepped through “A Day in the Life,” providing 20-year contrasts in a typical person’s day, from when one wakes up in the morning (20 years ago, we used to brush our teeth the moment we awoke, but today we first check our e-mail) to when one goes to sleep (back then, we used to read books, but today we read and play games on our iPads and Kindles). She remarked how Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer did not exist 20 years ago; Amazon, Facebook, Google, Netflix, Skype, Twitter, and YouTube did not exist; and how even Android, Blackberry, iPod, iPhone, iPad, and Kindle did not exist.

“Imagine your life without them!” Wing said.

The day then featured a collection of extraordinary presentations describing both the progress and promise of the field. The audience-which included a large number of viewers to a live web stream-heard about human language technology; autonomous vehicles; sensing; privacy; security; software; scientific discovery; data-driven approaches to health, to science, and to reasoning; and so on. And it learned that advances in computer science have an extremely broad role. In medicine, for example, that role includes not only electronic health records, but also evidence-based medicine, automated diagnosis, and the complete instrumentation of the body.

In energy and sustainability, that role includes not only high-performance computing as utilized by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, but also sensors in homes for energy management:  smart homes and smart offices as the leaf notes of the smart grid, a focus of DoE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

And in transportation, the audience took in not just the promise of widespread use of autonomous vehicles in the years ahead, but also how society is already benefiting from capabilities such as adaptive cruise control, anti-lock brakes, and automated stay-in-lane systems that can increase the utilization of existing highways, and it heard about continued advances in logistics that allow companies such as to increase the utilization of vehicles, better amortizing the economic and environmental costs of their production.

Former Vice President Gore described the discussions that led to the High-Performance Computing Act of 1991; the role of the National Coordination Office and the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC) in helping to shape the executive branch agency investments in research and development in the networking and IT sector; and the essential role of the program in driving the nation’s competitiveness. And he emphasized the role of technology in democracy and civic discourse. The good news:  the Internet has shown its power to facilitate disruptive change around the globe. The bad news:  in many nations, including our own, the role of the Internet in lowering the barrier-to-entry to the public square where discourse takes place has just begun. There is a great deal more that must be accomplished.

The symposium concluded with a panel led by Tom Kalil, Deputy Director for Policy for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, discussing how to encourage truly ground-breaking research.

Following the symposium, many of the current NITRD agencies participated in an evening reception and showcase event where they presented flyers, posters, and/or small demonstrations highlighting their key accomplishments over the years-including results enabled by agency investment and cross-agency collaboration-as well as opportunities for the future.

Ultimately, the symposium captured the extraordinary achievements of the field and, particularly, the role played by a large number of Federal agencies, working together under the umbrella of the NITRD Program, in ensuring that the U.S. is the world leader in networking and information technology. And it underscored how the potential for the future, and the need to realize this potential, are even more extraordinary.

To view the full agenda, watch archived videos of the talks, and see the slideshows from the speakers, check out the symposium website: https://turing.cra.org/ccc/theimpactofnitrd .


Erwin Gianchandani ( erwin@cra.org ) is the director of the Computing Community Consortium within the Computing Research Association (CRA). He organized the NITRD Symposium along with Andrew Bernat, Executive Director, CRA; Vint Cerf, Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist, Google; Susan Graham, Pehong Chen Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Emerita, University of California, Berkeley (co-chair); Ed Lazowska, Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering, University of Washington (co-chair); Paul Messina, Director of Science, Argonne National Laboratory; and Paul Nielsen, Director and CEO, Carnegie Mellon University Software Engineering Institute.

The Computing Community Consortium, an activity of CRA, serves as a catalyst and enabler for the computing research community by bringing the community together to discuss and encourage revolutionary, high-impact research directions. The CCC is funded through a cooperative agreement between the National Science Foundation and CRA.

Symposium Marks 20 Years of Coordinated Federal Investment in Networking and IT R&D