PITAC gets new life as part of PCAST

Combination of two committees could help raise IT issues to higher level

President Bush is reviving the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC), which he let expire in June, by folding it into the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).

Bush issued an executive order Sept. 30 announcing that PCAST will absorb PITAC's functions. The latter advised the president on IT research and development (R&D). PCAST advises the president on technology, scientific research priorities, and math and science education.

Some observers, including former PITAC members, think combining the committees could help elevate IT issues as members examine how IT relates to science, technology and education. Others, however, think PCAST members will have their hands too full with their own issues to focus on PITAC concerns.

But E. Floyd Kvamme, PCAST's co-chairman and a partner at the venture capital firm of Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, said the first priority is to release a report on the progress of IT R&D at the federal level.

That assessment was a priority for PITAC before the Bush administration disbanded the committee.

Proponents of increased federal funding for IT R&D say the new committee will not succeed unless the Bush administration appoints IT experts with the same prominence as current PCAST members and acts on the committee's recommendations.

Kvamme plans to launch PITAC-related activities during PCAST's December meeting. By then, he anticipates the council will have grown to at least 35 members, about 20 of whom will serve on an IT working group.

The council currently has 23 members, plus the director of the Executive Office of the President's Office of Science and Technology Policy. Last month's executive order allows PCAST to grow to up to 45 members — 20 more than previously mandated.

"The whole multidisciplinary nature of science and technology these days makes this a very good move and raises the [profile] of [IT] to a new level," Kvamme said.

The council would most likely establish an outside technical advisory group to work on IT issues, much like the group of about 50 government and private-sector nanotechnology scientists whom PCAST selected to assess the national nanotechnology research program, Kvamme said.

Computer science researchers say that group would be a good model to follow.

Before the reorganization, many observers had been concerned about the timing of the president's decision to dissolve PITAC, saying that inattention to IT research could harm future innovation, U.S. jobs and the country's global competitiveness.

The influence of PITAC's more recent reports remains unknown.

Former PITAC members released their last report, "Computational Science: Ensuring America's Competitiveness," after the committee's dissolution. It recommends long-term investment in computational science research and a fast-track study on ways that federal spending can advance computational science in academia, industry and government.

A February PITAC report on cybersecurity states that the federal budget for research into civilian cybersecurity is inadequate and recommends that the Bush administration increase the National Science Foundation's budget for cybersecurity research by $90 million annually.

Former PITAC members view the committee's reconstruction as a potentially positive change that could magnify the role of independent IT advice in the Bush administration.

"PCAST is an extraordinary group of individuals," said Ed Lazowska, former PITAC co-chairman and the Bill and Melinda Gates chairman in computer science and engineering at the University of Washington.

PCAST members include many big-name figures, such as Dell founder Michael Dell, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Emeritus Charles Vest and Microsoft Executive Vice President Robert Herbold.

Kvamme does not know whom the administration has invited to join PCAST or when it will choose the new appointees. Bush administration officials have told him they are actively seeking additional experts and that he will keep his post as co-chairman.

Lazowska said PCAST's new members must have the same stature and expertise as existing PCAST members if the group is to be effective in overseeing the country's IT leaders.

Former PITAC member Dan Reed, vice chancellor of IT and chief information officer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, applauded Kvamme's idea to examine the federal government's commitment to IT R&D.

"IT pervades so many aspects of science, technology and education that examining it in a holistic context has great value," he said.

"PCAST is really the pre-eminent scientific advisory group to the president," Reed said. "In some ways, this elevates the IT issues to a higher level."

Some industry observers displayed mixed emotions about the turn of events, saying they will hold their breath until PCAST's new lineup materializes and follows through on its promises.

"Having PITAC become part of PCAST is better than nothing, but frankly, I don't think it's an adequate solution," said Harris Miller, president of the IT Association of America, which represents high-tech companies.

Although PCAST is more prestigious and well-regarded by the administration, the members already have too much on their plates, he said, adding that they likely cannot handle PCAST's huge program plus all the items that the PITAC docket would add.

Peter Harsha, director of government affairs at the Computing Research Association, agreed that PCAST has its hands full, but said the new committee will do an excellent job on whatever elements of the IT R&D program it focuses.

The ultimate power of the new body depends on getting the administration's attention.

"Unfortunately, as was the case with PITAC, having good recommendations is no guarantee that the president will act on them," Harsha said.

A natural blend?

In the past, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) studied science and technology broadly, while the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC) focused on IT experimentation. The move to blend PCAST's sweeping scientific interests and PITAC's concentration on research could produce a more integrated picture of the country's IT posture.

Recent PCAST reports:

2005: "The National Nanotechnology Initiative at Five Years: Assessment and Recommendations of the National Nanotechnology Advisory Panel."

2004: "IT Manufacturing and Competitiveness " and "Science and Engineering Capabilities."

Recent PITAC reports:

2005: "Computational Science: Ensuring America's Competitiveness" and "Cyber Security: A Crisis of Prioritization."

2004: "Revolutionizing Health Care Through Information Technology."

— Aliya Sternstein

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