President pulls the plug on PITAC

Failure to renew the IT advisory committee raises concerns about research budgets

President Bush has let an advisory committee on information technology expire without reappointing current members or selecting new ones. The President's IT Advisory Committee (PITAC) will examine no further issues, a committee member said last week.

Many science observers are concerned about the timing of the president's decision, saying that inattention to IT research and development could harm future innovation, U.S. jobs and the country's global competitiveness.

PITAC is a congressionally mandated committee composed of industry and academic experts appointed by the president. The executive order establishing the most recent committee expired June 1.

Before releasing a report June 16 on ensuring U.S. competitiveness in computational science, committee members had planned to take a broad look at IT R&D as a follow-up to a report they published in 1999. Some industry leaders say that report helped convince lawmakers to increase funding for IT research at the National Science Foundation.

The influence of the committee's more recent reports remains to be seen. A February 2005 report on cybersecurity states that the federal budget for research into civilian cybersecurity is inadequate and recommends that NSF's budget for cybersecurity research be increased $90 million annually.

Some observers speculate that, because current members have not been informed of an extension, administration officials may be preparing to nominate a whole new slate of experts.

Such a move would have both pluses and minuses, said Peter Harsha, director of government affairs at the Computing Research Association. "The biggest disadvantage is that there is a learning curve to climb for the committee to really be effective on examining issues," he said.

But Harris Miller, president of the IT Association of America, said he doubts that PITAC will be renewed. "The U.S. government is potentially tossing away a valuable source of input from some leading thinkers on important issues like research and development and cybersecurity," he said.

Miller said the word "president" in PITAC's name gave the committee the authority to criticize IT funding levels and promote R&D. "The goal has been to highlight some shortcomings, which I'm sure the administration doesn't appreciate," he said. But Miller added that committee members emphasized "positive steps that we as a nation can take going forward."

Officials at the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Executive Office of the President would not comment on PITAC's renewal but said administration officials will continue seeking outside advice on IT issues.

"PITAC has been a valuable source for expert advice on IT issues," said Robert Hopkins, a spokesman for the office. "The administration believes that external advice on IT issues will continue to be a critical source for policy input and guidance."

PITAC's final report was issued by the Computational Science Subcommittee, led by Dan Reed, vice chancellor of IT and chief information officer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "People are a little demoralized about the fact that PITAC hasn't been renewed," he said.


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PITAC: Big science requires big money

Members of the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee released their latest report, "Computational Science: Ensuring America's Competitiveness," after the committee's dissolution.

More than a Band-Aid approach is needed to remedy the challenges facing computational science, according to the committee's report. It recommends a fast-track study on ways that federal spending can advance computational science in academia, industry and government.

The report came out of the committee's Computational Science Subcommittee, led by Dan Reed, vice chancellor for IT and chief information officer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"The thing that has changed in computational science from 20 years ago is that computational science has become big science," Reed said.

Just as in physics and biomedical research, maintaining preeminence in computational science research now requires a long-term investment, he said.

— Aliya Sternstein

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