Federal IT funds for R&D misused, group says

Study finds a scant amount of the $4 billion pot actually gets to IT R&D

A report released today by a group of leading scientists and engineers said only a “substantial fraction” of the estimated $4 billion federal agencies get for IT research and development actually goes for those purposes.

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) is a group of people with expertise in science and technology -- including Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt and Microsoft Chief Research and Strategy Officer Craig Mundie -- appointed by the president. Its role is to provide the administration with expert independent advice on advanced IT.

The study assesses the status and direction of the federal Networking and Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) program. The program is the primary mechanism by which the government coordinates its unclassified networking and information technology (NIT) research and development (R&D) investments.

Related coverage:

'Sputnik moment': It's 1957 all over again

PCAST found that a “substantial fraction” of the NITRD multi-agency spending specifically represents spending that supports R&D in other fields, rather than spending on R&D on NIT itself. As a result, the report found the country is actually spending far less on networking and IT R&D than the $4 billion-plus indicated in the federal budget. 

To provide a scientific basis for its assessment of NITRD, PCAST appointed an expert 14-member working group that consulted with more than 50 individuals, including government officials, industry representatives, and experts from academia.

One reason the funding may never have found its way to the IT areas of high-performance computing, cybersecurity and large-scale networking could be a misinterpretation of what “IT development” actually means. The trend seems to be agencies using IT to advance the research in their own fields, such as souped-up databases, but “not driving the forefront of networking and information technology,” Ed Lazowska, a co-chair of the working group, told the Washington Post

The study calls for a more accurate accounting of this spending and recommends more spending on NITRD, including research in networking and information technology for health, energy and transportation.

“Our world today relies to an astonishing degree on networking and information technology systems, tools and services,” PCAST said in a statement. “… it is no exaggeration to say that this field today underpins the nation’s prosperity, health and security,” the statement continued.

Although high-performance computing remains critical to national security and economic competitiveness, the most widely followed international rankings of HPC system performance are based on metrics that capture only some of the capabilities that are relevant to America’s current national priorities, the report indicates. The document also states the United States must not allow disproportionate expenditures for the procurement of supercomputers to displace the fundamental research that will be required to develop "game-changing" future-generation HPC technologies.

This concept draws parallels to the recent surge in “Sputnik moment” references made by President Barack Obama, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Energy Secretary Steven Chu in recent weeks.

“In 1957, just before this college opened, the Soviet Union beat us into space by launching a satellite known as Sputnik,” Obama said in a speech at Forsyth Technical Community College in North Carolina on Dec. 6. “And that was a wake-up call that caused the United States to boost our investment in innovation and education – particularly in math and science.”

“So 50 years later," he continued, "our generation’s Sputnik moment is back.”

About the Author

Alysha Sideman is the online content producer for Washington Technology.

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