ACM President’s Op-Ed: Surrendering U.S. leadership in IT

In an excellent op-ed for News.com, ACM’s President Dave Patterson argues that the federal government is abandoning its previous vision of investing in long-term IT research that has driven many amazing innovations and multibillion industries (i.e. the Internet).

Over the last 10 years, however, there’s been a major shift in funding priorities and policy at DARPA and the National Science Foundation. The current DARPA policy, which mandates 12-month “go/no go” research milestones for IT, has shortened deadlines, thus discouraging long-term research. In addition, programs formerly open to academics are now classified; other programs have citizenship restrictions. In three years, DARPA halved academic IT research to $123 million in fiscal year 2004. DARPA today is no longer engaging all the best talent in long-term research, which has been so vital to America’s prowess in defense and essential to a robust economy.

He further explains how big of an issue this is as other agencies aren’t filling this gap:

In the last five years, IT proposals to the National Science Foundation jumped from 2,000 to 6,500, forcing the agency to leave many worthy proposals unfunded. Sadly, other agencies are not stepping in to take up the challenge. The Department of Homeland Security, which some hoped would augment the Science Foundation and DARPA, spends just a few million dollars per year for IT research. NASA also is downsizing its IT effort; in March it encouraged all but 70 of its 1,400 employees at its Silicon Valley center to retire.

He also discusses the implications of this shift in strategies:

The history of IT is littered with companies that lost substantial leads in this fast-changing field. I see no reason why it couldn’t happen to countries. Indeed, at the recent International Collegiate Programming Contest of the Association for Computing Machinery, four Asian teams finished in the top dozen, including the champion, while the best U.S. finish was 17th, its worst ever. If current U.S. government policies continue, IT leadership could easily be surrendered to Asia.

The column and tomorrow’s (Thursday, May 12) the House Science Committee hearing do a great job of framing the issues that Congress and the Executive Branch really have to consider.

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