PCAST meets without new members

More than three months after President Bush revived the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC) by folding it into the President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST), the reconstituted council met today for the first time — without any new members.

In an executive order Sept. 30, Bush directed PCAST to absorb PITAC's functions. The latter council advised the president on IT research and development. PCAST advises the president on technology, scientific research priorities, and math and science education.

At today’s meeting, PCAST members indicated an interest in IT research and development by discussing it for 40 minutes after listening to a 90-minute overview of the government’s Networking and IT Research and Development (NITRD) program.

High-tech industry leaders and researchers have long warned that federal spending trends indicate the Bush administration's declining interest in IT research. They are worried 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.

E. Floyd Kvamme, PCAST's co-chairman and a partner at the venture capital firm of Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, has said that a first priority of the newly reconstituted PCAST group would be to release a report about those concerns.

The council has 23 members, in addition to the director of the Executive Office of the President's Office of Science and Technology Policy. September’s executive order allows the president to appoint as many as 45 members, which is 20 more than previously mandated.

Kvamme said in October 2005 that the council most likely would establish an outside technical advisory group to work on IT issues, much like a group of about 50 government and private-sector nanotechnology scientists whom PCAST selected to assess the national nanotechnology research program.

Kvamme briefly mentioned an advisory group today but said no decision has been reached.

Bush administration officials have stated that the current membership roster is strong enough to take on IT R&D issues even before without additional members.

Many big-name figures are PCAST members, including Dell founder Michael Dell, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Emeritus Charles Vest and Microsoft Executive Vice President Robert Herbold.

Today’s agenda allowed 20 minutes for a discussion of nanotechnology, 60 minutes on the U.S.-China Science and Technology Forum and three hours on advanced energy technologies.

At the time of the president’s executive order, some observers, including former PITAC members, thought combining the committees might elevate IT issues as members examine IT’s links to science, technology and education. Others, however, thought PCAST members would be spread too thin with their own issues to focus on PITAC concerns.

During the meeting, Simon Szykman, NITRD’s National Coordination Office director, briefed PCAST members on PITAC’s past studies.

In 1999 PITAC issued a formal report on the progress of the government’s IT R&D program. An updated assessment was a priority of PITAC before Bush administration officials disbanded the committee.

Former PITAC members released their last report, "Computational Science: Ensuring America's Competitiveness," after the committee's dissolution. 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.

A February PITAC report on cybersecurity states that the federal budget for research into civilian cybersecurity is inadequate and recommends that the Bush administration increase the National Science Foundation's budget for cybersecurity research by $90 million a year.

Szykman said that once PCAST gets additional members, the panel will have no problem juggling its additional advisory duties.

Administration officials from the Office of Science and Technology Policy 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.

Officials filmed and recorded today’s meeting and will give DVDs to new members when they are appointed so they can catch up.

Peter Harsha, director of government affairs at the Computing Research Association, said he felt that PCAST has a full workload after today’s meeting.

Harsha said Szykman’s history of NITRD and PITAC helped make the case that it is time to take another broad look at federal-level IT R&D. PCAST advisers generally agreed that another wide-ranging study is necessary.

“If this committee stays engaged and stays focused on the idea of really digging into the NITRD program to see whether additional structural or budgetary changes are needed, it'll be a good thing,” Harsha said.


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