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Federal Panel Calls Information Technology Research Spending Dangerously Inadequate

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WASHINGTON--An interim report released in August by the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee here called current levels of federal investment in information technology research "dangerously inadequate" and recommended spending increases of roughly a billion dollars over the next five years.

A 26-member committee of computer engineering business executives and scholars, including a computational biology professor and a medical informatics specialist, contended, "The current federal program is inadequate to start necessary new centers and research programs. Computers on university campuses and other civilian research centers are falling rapidly behind the state of the art. Critical problems are going unsolved and we are endangering the flow of ideas that has fueled the information economy."

The committee recommended that federal spending in 2000 include "a commitment to sustained growth in IT research and a system designed to foster innovative research."

Software, supercomputers, and scalability

Four priority research areas were identified by the committee: software, scalable information infrastructure, high-end computing, and socioeconomic and workforce effects.

Software research should be given the highest priority, the committee asserted. The report recommended increased support of fundamental research in human-computer interfaces and interaction, additional funding for fundamental research in software development methods and component technologies, and sponsorship of a national library of software components. The government should make software research a substantive part of every major IT research initiative, the committee said.

Internet operating tools are also in desperate need of development funding, the committee suggested. "Tools now used to operate an internet with 30 million computers cannot be safely extended to networks that will involve billions of distinct components," the report argued. "Significant research is needed to understand the behavior of complex systems serving diverse customers while achieving flexibility and scalability."

To meet those needs the committee recommended increased funding for core software and communications technologies R&D, aimed at scaling the information infrastructure. "Next-generation internet" testbeds should also be expanded with industry access and partnerships, the committee asserted.

In high-end computing, innovative architectures, hardware technologies, and software strategies to overcome current systems' limitations should be funded, the panel advised.

On the socioeconomic side, instituting education and training programs would better equip the US workforce to meet the information technology industry's demands, the committee maintained. And, as a short-term solution, the committee advised increasing the annual cap on H-1B visas to allow more skilled IT workers into the country

Implications for bioinformatics

Committee member Sherrilynne Fuller, acting director of informatics at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, told BioInform that bioinformatics and medical informatics in general were important application areas discussed by the committee. But, she added, many important computing and communications applications areas are in need of support and research funding.

"Without investment in basic research in information technology, the innovations we've experienced to date in areas such as bioinformatics are at risk. We need to invest in long-term, high-risk computing and communications technologies that will lay the foundation for future breakthroughs in bioinformatics and medical informatics, the kind of investments that brought us the internet and the web," Fuller said.

John Miller, director of the Center for Computational Biology at Montana State University in Bozeman and another committee member, observed, "before the internet was born there was hardly bioinformatics. Bioinformatics has really been spawned by computing and communications."

Enhancements to hardware and software research funding would inevitably increase opportunities in bioinformatics, Miller said. Increased funding for information technology in general could have huge implications for bioinformatics, he claimed.

"In the early stages of the internet, no attention was paid to scalability of architectures or protocols," Miller explained. "With the vast amount of data, genomic and otherwise, being transmitted over the internet, you can already see evidence of problems. It won't be too long before we bog down and stop. Certainly that will be so for bioinformatics and information science," he warned.

Added Fuller, "It is possible, in my opinion, that basic research in applications areas such as bioinformatics and medical informatics will have broad impact. The key is strategic investment in long-term basic research programs."

The committee recommended that the president designate the US National Science Foundation to manage coordination of increased funding programs. If that happens, at least one member of the genomics community will have the government's ear: NSF Director Rita Colwell sits on the board at the Institute for Genomic Research.

--Adrienne Burke

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