White House Panel: Feds Need Sharper Focus for IT Research Investments

The United States government is falling behind in making critical and productive investments in research related to networking and information technology (NIT), a government panel reported Thursday.

Federal agencies have used funds designated for direct pioneering research and development in NIT for alternative purposes, such as the creation of information technology products and infrastructure expansion in support of research in other fields, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) noted.

This failure to properly prioritize NIT research and development “could seriously jeopardize America’s national security and economic competitiveness,” the Council cautioned.

“We’re investing less than we think and less than we need,” said PCAST member David Shaw, chief scientist at D.E. Shaw Research. “If America is to retain its historical position of international leadership, its funding priorities must include high risk, high reward research with the potential for producing unanticipated, truly transformative advances.”

More Transparency

The report was based on the performance of a coalition of 14 agencies participating in the federal Networking and Information Technology Research and Development program (NITRD). These agencies target US$4 billion annually for NIT research and development. However, much of that spending goes to NIT-related projects that support research and development in other fields.

One example cited by PCAST is the National Institutes of Health (NIH): Less than 12 percent of its top 100 funding awards totaling $600 million was spent directly on NIT research and development. The remainder went to NIT components of biomedical research projects.

The panel concluded that the absolute level of federal NIT research should be boosted by at least $1 billion per year over the current level on a variety of initiatives that would benefit such sectors as energy, healthcare, transportation and national security. Some of that funding could come from redirecting the current pattern of investment to more cutting-edge purposes, both in hardware and software, according to the report.

One reason for the imbalance in research funding is that the agencies themselves have flawed systems for properly tracking expenditures. However, a program is under way to monitor funds better.

“We committed in February of this year to improving the transparency of these programs, and we will have that up and running by next February,” Aneesh Chopra, the federal government’s chief technology officer, told TechNewsWorld at a briefing on the report.

The improved transparency will lead to better analysis and better investment decisions, he said.

Public and Private Sector Roles

The report triggered a discussion about the role of the public and private sectors in IT research. Several panelists at the briefing stressed that federal-level spending for NIT research is essential for the future development of appropriate technologies. While private sector firms can contribute somewhat in the research effort, they are not geared to investing in pioneering research and are interested in more practical research investment in NIT, they contended.

The crossover between public and private sector investments in IT research actually involves more of a balance between the two, according to one business observer.

“There is a constant challenge in finding the synergies between government and private sector research. Private companies invest a lot in IT research and most of it is related to applications whereas government has the ability to go beyond that,” Mark White, chief technology officer at Deloitte Services, told TechNewsWorld.

“But there is a connection between the two in that the private sector can utilize the results of government research, which enhances the return on investment,” he said. “The value of the NITRD program and the report is that helps to create an awareness of the roles of each sector for the greatest benefit.”

Another close observer of the federal IT research program agreed that government investments have an impact far beyond the government agencies that direct those investments.

“The private sector benefits from these investments,” Peter Harsha, director of government affairs for the Computing Research Association, told TechNewsWorld. “First, the research helps to advance technology generally — and the support to academia helps to develop the workforce needed by the IT businesses.”

Whatever the direct role is for the private sector in funding IT research, the government values the contributions that business can make in shaping the direction of research, Chopra said.

“There is a significant role for the private sector here, just as there is for the reforms the administration is initiating in information technology and procurement across the federal government,” he said. “We will be conducting outreach and seeking feedback from the private sector on the future direction of NIT research.”

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