Leadership R&D

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 request.

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

request.

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

cube.

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

initiatives.

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

said.

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

programs."

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.

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