NSF grants set stage for IT research initiative

The National Science Foundation doled out $50 million in information technology grant money to research institutions nationwide last week as a precursor to the Clinton administration's initiative to support basic research in computer technology, a program that faces an uncertain future in Congress.

Under its Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence (KDI) program, NSF awarded 31 grants to 24 institutions that will perform research on subjects as varied as intellectual property law for the Digital Age to using computers to discover and design pharmaceutical drugs.

KDI will serve as a solid foundation for President Clinton's Information Technology for the 21st Century Initiative (IT2), said Richard Hilderbrandt, an NSF official who led a working group on the grant program.

The White House designed IT2 to address recommendations made by the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee that the federal government was endangering the country's international edge in IT by not providing enough money for basic research in IT.

The committee recommended that the government double funding for IT research over the next five years and devote that amount to basic research. Six agencies - NSF, the departments of Defense and Energy, NASA, the National Institutes of Health and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - are slated to receive IT2 funds.

The grants fulfill the fundamental-research mission called for in IT2. Collectively, they address subjects referenced in IT2, such as high-performance computing, Next Generation Internet and social issues stemming from the Digital Age.

"KDI leads directly into and sets the stage for NSF's leadership role in handling this sort of initiative," Hilderbrandt said.

The kind of research funded under the KDI grants is unique, said Doug Tygar, a professor of computer science at the University of California at Berkeley. Tygar and two other Berkeley professors won a $940,000 grant to study economic, legal and technical aspects of intellectual property rights in the Digital Age.

The field, Tygar said, "hasn't been studied much before" and never by an outside party, such as a university. Industry has researched aspects of intellectual property rights in the Digital Age, he said.

"Because this work is very interdisciplinary, the National Science Foundation is the most natural home for this sort of work," Tygar said. "Given the widespread interest in networking, the research in these fields is especially important right now."

NSF is the lead organization in the IT2 initiative. The Clinton administration has asked Congress to give NSF $146 million for IT2 research. The House, however, agreed to pay for only $35 million worth of basic research in IT through NSF.

This week or next week, the Senate likely will consider funding basic research in IT, said David Stonner, head of congressional affairs for NSF. "That will give us a better view of where we will be," he said. "We will be somewhere between the House and Senate versions."

Stonner downplayed the House's recommended funding level, saying that House leaders "made a comment that it was due to a lack of available funds.... There is strong support for the concept of information technology research. The question is, At what level will it be funded?"

Elizabeth Morra, spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee, said the House's decision to fund IT2 at a lesser amount than Clinton requested was not politically motivated. "We are living with the reality of the 1997 budget agreement," she said. "All I can say is, We've done the best we can to prioritize spending under tight caps."

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