PCAST panel ready to roll

Some heavyweights from the information technology industry will join the president’s foremost advisory committee on science as the Bush administration seeks to boost an initiative to ensure that the United States remains competitive in global IT innovation.

The selections come nearly nine months after President Bush disbanded the President’s IT Advisory Committee, which advised both the Clinton and Bush administrations on IT research and development. Bush later folded PITAC’s functions into the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Until then, PCAST studied science and technology more broadly, advising on scientific research priorities and math and science education.

The reconfigured PCAST met for the first time in January. The previous PITAC board had not been reinstated, and Bush had not tapped additional IT advisers to fill the empty seats on PCAST.

The delay in choosing new members worried researchers who warned that federal spending trends reflect the administration’s waning interest in IT research. Industry and academia have long worried that U.S. jobs and national competitiveness would suffer if the federal government fails to support IT research beyond projects related to national defense or homeland security.

Those concerns have abated somewhat since Bush’s January State of the Union address. In the speech, he announced an initiative to stimulate R&D in major scientific areas, including nanotechnology, supercomputing and alternative energy sources. The three-part program, called the American Competitiveness Initiative, focuses on R&D, education, and workforce and immigration policies.

Now, 14 new science and technology experts will join PCAST, which currently has 24 members. Some of the holdovers carry extensive IT credentials, including Dell founder Michael Dell, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore and Microsoft Executive Vice President Robert Herbold.

New PCAST member Dan Reed, director of the Renaissance Computing Institute, is the sole legacy of the former PITAC.

After Reed learned he won the PCAST nod, he said, “I was very pleased. PCAST is really the premier advisory group for [science], and I was delighted to represent the IT community in that role.”

The IT field has matured to a level that demands attention from such an important council, he added. “Computing has become a peer with theory and experiment as the way of doing science. It’s an enabler for scientific discovery,” said Reed, who is also vice chancellor of IT and chief information officer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Former PITAC members released their last report, “Computational Science: Ensuring America’s Competitiveness,” after the committee expired. 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.

Reed said PCAST must evaluate the overall federal IT R&D budget if the country is to advance in the general sciences and boost its competitive posture.

“At a high level, the whole notion of the American Competitiveness Initiative and broadening the basis of funding…is really important. Limited investment in the physical sciences has hampered not only their advances but advances in the biological sciences as well,” Reed said.

Making it work

Top technology executives say they are confident that the reconstituted President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) will be an effective voice for IT research.

Floyd Kvamme, PCAST’s co-chairman and a partner at the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, said he intends to complete a review of the federal information technology research and development program within a year.

The council is gathering names of outside experts to serve on a technical advisory group that will work on the report, similar to the group of about 50 government and private-sector nanotechnology scientists whom PCAST selected to assess the national nanotechnology research program.

Apart from the IT review, PCAST is completing a report on renewable energy technologies. An update on PCAST’s 2005 nanotechnology assessment is due early next year.

PCAST also plans to publish a report on personalized medicine. Members have not yet set the parameters of that investigation.

The expanded PCAST group will hold its next meeting March 28.

“We’re very pleased to have these new members officially named and are anxious to get going,” Kvamme said last week.

Ed Lazowska, PITAC co-chairman from 2003 until the committee’s end in June 2005, said he is more hopeful about getting funding for IT research.

“It’s a new day since the president’s State of the Union message,” he said. “The American Competitiveness Initiative gives reason for hope that research and advanced education will receive appropriate prioritization. That creates an opportunity for PCAST to be effective.”

— Aliya Sternstein

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