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Users are putting Band-Aids on software, says new federal research chief

Jeannette Wing will soon take charge of NSF's computing research spending

March 8, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - WASHINGTON -- Jeannette Wing is focused on the future -- and later this year she will be the person responsible for shaping it as the new head of the computer and information science and engineering directorate at the National Science Foundation.

But Wing, who heads the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon University, sees big trouble for the U.S., private industry and users unless fundamental changes are made in the way research is done.

When Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates testified this week before a U.S. Senate committee with recommendations on improving U.S. competitiveness, he called for increases in basic research funding. It was a rare moment for basic science, which can elicit the same glazed-eye reaction from the media and lawmakers that one sees in an end-of-the-day high school science class.

Wing's concerns come at a time when basic scientific research has an image problem. It isn't seen as sexy, like a new Web 2.0 mashup or some speedy processor. Instead, Wing said, it may mean something as esoteric as development of an algorithm that has no immediate use because it's ahead of the technology that can utilize it.

Wing is passionate about the subject and says people like Gates need to talk it up and urge Congress to increase research funding. "We cannot say it enough; we can't say it loud enough," she said.

The National Science Foundation funds 87% of all federally funded research in computer science out of a budget that is now about $530 million. That budget, beginning July 1, will be managed under Wing's leadership. The NSF pays for research that private industry doesn't -- namely basic, long-range research without any immediate payback.

Wing sees her job as making esoteric research issues real, immediate and relevant to users. "Today in security, we are patching systems and fighting viruses and worms and doing source code analysis using techniques that the basic research community invented 20 years ago, or even longer than that," she said.

Consequently, users "are basically putting Band-Aids on our software and trying to build better intrusion-detection systems," said Wing, while the basic research needed to protect against future threats isn't being done.

The advanced programming languages now used, such as Java and C+, all evolved from basic programming language research in the late 1970s, said Wing. "That's where we are now."

To understand how research can create new things, Wing points to Google Inc. Its stems from development of a page rank algorithm, which "is just an instance of basic research."

There are many fundamental areas that need to be addressed, according to Wing. For instance, software code today has bugs and vulnerabilities that make it susceptible to attacks and crashes. Rebooting an operating system is one thing, but she points to embedded systems, such as those surgically implanted in people to help with heart function. "Why should we be putting up with such unreliable systems," said Wing.

"We need this (research effort) because we need to retain society's trust in the computing system that touches us on a daily life," said Wing.

Even so, the NSF only approves about 18% of the funding requests its gets; many computer scientists are turned away. "There is a lot of science that's just not being done," said Wing. Meanwhile, India and China are investing in basic research. China, in particular, has the money, power and hunger "to do whatever they want," she said.

Read more about Government IT in Computerworld's Government IT Topic Center.

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