House committee authorizes $4.8B for basic IT research

The House Science Committee last week unanimously passed a bill to set aside $4.8 billion in funding for information technology research for the next five fiscal years.

The bill, the Networking and Information Technology Research and Development Act, would funnel more than half of the money to the National Science Foundation and divide the rest between five other federal agencies.

Among other things, the money would be used for long-term, basic IT research grants, including high-end computing and software and network fragility, security and scalability.

For the United States to maintain its edge in IT research and development, it is important that scientists perform long-term research in the field, according to the bill. Most IT research has been conducted by private industry, and the private sector "tends to focus its spending on short-term, applied research," the bill states.

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), chairman of the committee, said increasing funding for IT research is important to support what has become the engine behind U.S. economic expansion. Increased IT research, "will [help] produce the next generation of highly skilled IT workers," he said.

David Stonner, head of congressional affairs at NSF, said the bill would increase NSF funding for IT research from $273 million this fiscal year to $445 million in fiscal 2000.

The bill "authorizes us at what we consider appropriate levels for this important research," Stonner said. "This is a ...very important first step."

In all, the bill calls for $4.8 billion - including about $2.5 billion for NSF - for IT research spending over the next five fiscal years.

The bill's future in the full House and Senate, however, is unclear. The House Appropriations Committee in July recommended that NSF receive $35 million for funding IT research in fiscal 2000, $111 million less than what President Clinton requested.

Stonner said the Sept. 9 vote on the bill "sends our appropriators a strong signal that information technology research should be a priority."

The federal government "is uniquely positioned to support long-term fundamental research," according to the bill.

The bill further states that while funding for basic IT research has grown at almost twice the rate of funding for federal research in general since 1986, the current level of fundamental IT research is "inadequate."

According to the bill, IT companies have accounted for about one-third of the growth of the U.S. economy since 1992, and IT is the fastest-growing sector of the economy, with a growth rate of about 12 percent a year since 1993.

In addition to funding basic IT research, the bill also would:

* Pay for the establishment of terascale computing capabilities at one or more sites and for broadening NSF's Advanced Partnership for Advanced Computational Infrastructure program.

* Establish IT internship programs for research at private companies.

* Provide about $110 million in new funding for the Next Generation Internet program.

* Require NSF to conduct a study on the availability of encryption technologies in foreign countries and how they compare with encryption technologies subject to export restrictions in the United States.

NASA, the Energy Department, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency will share the money with NSF.

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