PCAST, formed 7 months ago to focus on IT research, still lacks new members
More than seven months after President Bush disbanded the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC), a reconfigured council met for the first time without any new members.
The situation raises some concern among high-tech industry leaders and researchers who warn that federal spending trends indicate the Bush administration's declining interest in IT research. They worry that U.S. jobs and national competitiveness will suffer if the federal government fails to support IT research that does not directly relate to national defense or homeland security.
The functions of PITAC, which advised President Bush on IT research and development, have been absorbed into the President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST). PCAST advises the president on technology, scientific research priorities, and math and science education. President Bush let the stand-alone PITAC committee expire in June 2005. But the previous PITAC board has not been reinstated, and Bush has not tapped additional IT advisers to fill the empty seats on PCAST.
At a Jan. 10 meeting, PCAST's existing members indicated an interest in IT research and development, discussing it for 40 minutes after listening to a 90-minute overview of the government's Networking and IT Research and Development program.
The PCAST council currently has 24 members, all holdovers from the previous board. The president's executive order issued Sept. 30, 2005, allows him to appoint as many as 45 members, which is 20 more than previously mandated.
However, Bush administration officials have stated that the current membership roster is strong enough to handle IT R&D issues even before additional members arrive. Many notable figures are PCAST members, including Dell founder Michael Dell, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore and Microsoft Executive Vice President Robert Herbold.
The latest meeting's agenda also allowed 20 minutes for a discussion on nanotechnology, 60 minutes for the U.S.-China Science and Technology Forum and three hours to discuss advanced energy technologies.
Administration officials from the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) filmed and recorded the meeting and will give DVDs to new members so they can catch up. Officials would not comment on when they expect to announce the names of new panel members. "The quality of our candidates is more important than the timing of it," OSTP spokesman Donald Tighe said.
At the time of the president's executive order, some observers, including former PITAC members, thought combining the committees might elevate awareness of IT issues by permitting the examination of IT's links to science, technology and education. Others, however, thought PCAST members would be too saddled with their own issues to focus on PITAC concerns.
Last week, E. Floyd Kvamme, PCAST's co-chairman and a partner at the venture capital firm of Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, explained why he has no concerns about PCAST members getting sidetracked.
"We have typically handled three or four topics in parallel at each time," he said. "That has not represented a problem for us in the past. The reason we proceeded, even though the new members had not been assigned, was that we have a goodly number of folks on the existing PCAST who have a great deal of interest in the IT space and that's why we had, I thought, a lively discussion about what we should do."
Kvamme added that it's his full intent to complete a careful review of the federal IT R&D program by the end of the year, continuing where the final PITAC board left off.
Former PITAC members say the nation's future depends on higher funding levels for science, engineering and advanced education than what the administration has budgeted.
"PITAC, for example, was under strict instructions from OSTP not to issue any recommendations that called for additional funding," said Ed Lazowska, former PITAC co-chairman from 2003 until the committee's end in June 2005.
"When we deviated and recommended even an extremely modest amount of additional funding as we did in our cybersecurity report we were greeted with, at best, cold stares," he added.
In terms of augmenting PCAST with additional IT-savvy members, Lazowska said he knows the administration began vetting several good candidates, and at least one outstanding candidate, promptly after the president's decision to combine the two councils. However, the administration has not contacted him, and he was not at will to name the candidates.
The president has not approached two influential authorities on IT: Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn. They designed the architecture for what became the Internet. In fact, Bush just awarded the two a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor bestowed in the United States.
Cerf, whom Google recently hired as its chief Internet evangelist, acknowledged that PITAC's departure means PCAST has a hard act to follow.
"PITAC worked very hard to understand and coordinate the federal research program related to information technology," Cerf said. "I am not privy to the agenda of the sitting PCAST but absent some additional members, it is not clear how deeply the U.S. research programs will be evaluated."
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