There’s an excellent editorial in the new issue of Science magazine (May 6, 2005 issue) by our very own Ed Lazowska (professor of Computer Science here at Washington) that takes the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to task for abandoning its responsibility for funding visionary basic research in computing.
Next month, U.S. scientists Vinton G. Cerf and Robert E. Kahn will receive computing’s highest prize,
the A. M. Turing Award, from the Association for Computing Machinery. Their Transmission Control
Protocol (TCP), created in 1973, became the language of the Internet. Twenty years later, the Mosaic
Web browser gave the Internet its public face. TCP and Mosaic illustrate the nature of computer
science research, combining a quest for fundamental understanding with considerations of use. They
also illustrate the essential role of government-sponsored university-based research in producing the
ideas and people that drive innovation in information technology (IT).
Recent changes in the U.S. funding landscape have put this innovation pipeline at risk. The Defense Advanced
Research Projects Agency (DARPA) funded TCP. The shock of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957 led to the creation
of the agency, which was charged with preventing future technological surprises. From its inception, DARPA funded
long-term nonclassified IT research in academia, even during several wars, to leverage all the best minds. Much of this
research was dual-use, with the results ultimately advancing military systems
and spurring the IT industry.
U.S. IT research grew largely under DARPA and the National Science
Foundation (NSF). NSF relied on peer review, whereas DARPA bet on vision and
reputation, complementary approaches that served the nation well. Over the past
4 decades, the resulting research has laid the foundation for the modern micro-
processor, the Internet, the graphical user interface, and single-user workstations.
It has also launched new fields such as computational science. Virtually every
aspect of IT that we rely on today bears the stamp of federally sponsored research.
A 2003 National Academies study provided 19 examples where such work
ultimately led to billion-dollar industries, an economic benefit that reaffirms
science advisor Vannevar Bush’s 1945 vision in Science: The Endless Frontier.
However, in the past 3 years, DARPA funding for IT research at universities
has dropped by nearly half. Policy changes at the agency, including increased
classification of research programs, increased restrictions on the participation
of noncitizens, and “go/no-go” reviews applied to research at 12- to 18-month
intervals, discourage participation by university researchers and signal a shift from pushing the leading edge to “bridging
the gap” between fundamental research and deployable technologies. In essence, NSF is now relied on to support the
long-term research needed to advance the IT field.