President's Council seeks to accelerate government network advances

The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology released a report making several recommendations in the field of networking and IT R&D

Editors' note: This story was modified after its original publication to clarify information.

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) has made several recommendations in a report about the state of the government’s Networking and Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) Program.

The report, released Dec. 16, was put together by some of the top technology figures in the public and private sectors and explains the importance of NITRD as both a societal and economic driving force. Advances in networking and IT accelerate the pace of discovery in nearly all other fields, are essential to achieving the goals of open government and are key drivers of economic competitiveness, the report states.

“Our report focuses on innovations in NITRD to drive these national priorities forward,” said Ed Lazowska, co-chairman of PCAST’s Working Group and director of the eScience Institute at Washington University. “We find that most federal agencies do not fully grasp this. They may have a narrow view of the role of NITRD in their field. They may feel that they can get by solely on the deployment of today's NITRD rather than making advances.”

Federal CIO Vivek Kundra said his office has been tasked to close the gap between the public and private sectors and that the government has not made the type of inroads that the public should expect.


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“There is a huge gap between the public sector and the private sector,” Kundra said. “Every day, we can go online and make a reservation at our favorite restaurant through OpenTable, yet when you are dealing with government, you either have to hold onto the phone, turn in a paper form or wait in a long line.”

Phil Weiser, senior adviser to the director for technology and innovation at the National Economic Council, said certain industries have not yet been transformed by networking and IT. PCAST says those areas are national priorities that could greatly benefit from R&D.

“Today there are certain industry sectors that have not changed that much,” Weiser said. “Energy, education, transportation and health care have largely remained immune from what has happened over the last 20 years to other sectors so that people who engage with them can hardly recognize them.”

The report makes recommendations for improving each of those four sectors through research, development and implementation. In the area of health care in particular, a move to electronic medical records would only be the first step.

“The PCAST health IT report [released earlier this month] focused on the potential of health information technology — electronic health records and the role that government can play in advocating for standards for electronic medical records,” Lazowska said.

“At the same time, there areas of health care that require further advances in networking and information technology,” he added. “A natural question is, why is your body less instrumented than your car? [And] how do you provide cognitive assistance to Alzheimer’s patients?”

Although high-performance computing is an important aspect of IT research, it is also expensive and it might not be in the nation’s best interest to make it a priority, the report states. PCAST calls for changing the current quantification standard for high-performance computing — floating point operations per second — to multiple quantification methods that will enable research to focus on other areas so that it does not get bogged down in procurement strategies that could, in turn, hamper other research. The idea is to refocus the research in high-performance computing to high-risk, high-reward strategies that could enable the nation to leapfrog the global competition.

A commitment to maintaining, at all times and at any cost, a ranking significantly ahead of all nations, measured in terms of floating-point operations per second "may be an arms race that is very expensive and, since it addresses only some of the national priorities, may not be a good use of funds,” said David Shaw, the other co-chairman of PCAST’s Working Group and senior research fellow at the Center for Computational Biology and Bioinformatics at Columbia University. “One that may be controversial is that we recommend that it no longer be a major national strategic objective to be significantly ahead of other nations on measuring FLOPS on standard numerical benchmarks.”

PCAST also recommended research into the fields of large-scale data management and analysis, trustworthy systems and cybersecurity, scalable systems and networking, and software creation and evolution. Robotics and social systems, such as Wikipedia and Facebook, are other research priorities.

A portion of the report emphasizes the importance of federal funding for research in networking and IT. Tom Kalil, deputy director for policy at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said many of the most successful industries to emerge since 1995 have roots in federally funded R&D projects. The PCAST report cites the example of Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin serving as research assistants on the National Science Foundation’s Digital Library project while at Stanford University. The project had a natural search element to it, and from those seeds, the PageRank algorithm that powers Google was developed.

Another example is Akamai Technologies, co-founded by Tom Leighton with seed funding he received during his time at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Akamai’s technology now powers much of the Internet and is a widely used standard in digital production.

“Information and communications technology is having a huge impact on economies,” Kalil said. “You look at the period after 1995 when productivity started accelerating, productivity is the most important driver of our standard of living. I think if you look at the track record, it is very impressive. You look at many of the billion-dollar markets in the information technology sector, whether it is in the Internet or search engines or advanced microprocessors...there are a lot of seeds that come from federal funding.”

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Reader comments

Tue, Jan 4, 2011 David E. Shaw

In my role as a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, I co-chaired the working group that drafted the report to President Obama and Congress which was the subject of the article entitled “President’s Council seeks to accelerate government network advances” [Federal Computer Week, December 17, 2010]. This article attributed to me the following statement related to high-performance computing:

“We are suggesting that [high-performance computing] may be an arms race that is very expensive and, since it addresses only some of the national priorities, may not be a good use of funds.”

In my presentation on December 16, however, I was actually using the word “this” to refer not to “high-performance computing,” but to the policy I had just described in the preceding two sentences -- a commitment to maintaining, at all times and at any cost, a ranking “significantly ahead of all nations, measured in terms of FLOPS (floating-point operations per second)” on the specific numerical benchmark used to compile the widely followed “Top500” rankings. The PCAST report recognized the continued importance of such traditional numerical benchmarks, but concluded that non-numerical and data-intensive problems, among others, will also be important in addressing current national priorities. With regard to the question of funding levels, the report actually called for a substantial increase in federal funding for “basic research aimed at developing the fundamentally new approaches to high-performance computing that could ultimately allow us to ‘leapfrog’ other nations, maintaining the position of unrivaled leadership that America has historically enjoyed in HPC.”

David E. Shaw, Ph.D.
D. E. Shaw Research and
Columbia University

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