- By Paula Shaki Trimble
- May 15, 2000
National Science Foundation officials said that a national coordinating
organization that helps it manage the multiagency Information Technology
Research and Development Initiative serves as a model for managing future
interagency projects and provides justification for its increased budget
ITR, as the IT research and development initiative is known, is a five-year
program headed by NSF that counts on federal investment to develop high-
performance computing systems, global-scale networking technologies, applications
to manage and access vast distributed databases, and human interface technologies.
Not only does NSF oversee ITR, but in its fiscal 2001 budget request the
Clinton administration appointed NSF the lead agency for the National Nanotechnology
Initiative, an effort to develop technologies that operate at the particle
level. The initiative would, for example, enable the Library of Congress
to shrink all the information it houses into a device the size of a sugar
NSF requested a historic $675 million budget increase for 2001 to support
its new program responsibilities, including the nanotechnology initiative.
However, Senate appropriators on May 4 questioned the agency's capacity
to handle the increased budget and program responsibilities.
"While auditors have not identified any significant financial or management
problems with NSF, I am concerned about NSF taking on more responsibilities,
especially when its staffing resources have remained flat over the past
several years," said Christopher "Kit" Bond (R-Mo.), chairman of the Senate
Appropriations Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development,
and Independent Agencies, at a hearing.
Bond and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) expressed support for NSF's
lead on initiatives in biotechnology and information technology R&D
but voiced concern about the small agency's ability to handle large, multiagency
Mikulski questioned whether NSF is capable of drawing enough
attention to the nanotechnology initiative. "I'm looking for high visibility,"
Mikulski said. "It's not about throwing money at it; it's about putting
the spotlight on work outside [the National Institutes of Health]."
Despite the congressional concerns, NSF and other agencies involved
in the nano- technology initiative are developing a plan to coordinate various
agencies' activities, said Neal Lane, the president's science adviser. That
plan may include a small coordination committee based at NSF, he said.
Similarly, NSF oversees ITR with a staff of agency officials and contractors
tasked with administering it, said George Strawn, executive officer of NSF's
Computer and Information Sciences and Engineering directorate. The design
works well and could easily be applied to other similar projects such as
the nanotechnology initiative, he said. By co-locating the nano- technology
coordinating office with the existing IT office, the managers of the new
initiative would be able to learn from an experienced organization, he
Rather than adding another task to the Computer and Information Sciences
and Engineering directorate at NSF, which manages ITR, NSF's Engineering
directorate is designated the lead for nanotechnology.
"I think we might have swallowed real hard if we had been asked to take
on the initiative in the same directorate," Strawn said. This way, equal
attention will be drawn to another NSF unit, he said.
The ITR coordinating committee, made up of representatives from NSF,
NASA, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Environmental Protection
Agency and the departments of Energy, Defense and Commerce, is broken into
several working groups. For instance, the large-scale networking working
group has a networking research team, a joint engineering team to make sure
the network test beds interoperate, an applications group to create science
and engineering applications for the technology, and an Internet security
team, Strawn said.
"Coordinating the activities of federal agencies isn't always automatic,"
Strawn said, because funding comes from different appropriating committees
at different levels. "We don't want any gaps or unwanted overlaps in our
If one agency's funding falters, as was the case with the Next Generation
Internet project at DOE, "chances are we don't reach all our goals or we
delay some things," Strawn said. DOE is encountering similar issues with
ITR, he said.
NSF vigorously trimmed its staff prior to ITR as part of the plan to re-
invent government. ITR in "one fell swoop added a 50 percent increase" to
the agency's workload, Strawn said. As a result, NSF's administrator has
decided to increase personnel to support those tasks, but the agency would
rather have more funds to meet a more reasonable percentage of the demand
for ITR grants, he said. The agency has $90 million for ITR in 2000 but
received $3.3 billion in requests for research grants.