Happy Birthday, Sputnik! (Thanks for the Internet)

Fifty years ago, a small Soviet satellite was launched, stunning the U.S. and sparking a massive technology research effort. Could we be in for another "October surprise"?

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Farber sits on a computer science advisory board at the NSF, and he says he has been urging the agency to "take a much more aggressive role in high-risk research." He explains, "Right now, the mechanisms guarantee that low-risk research gets funded. It's always, 'How do you know you can do that when you haven't done it?' A program manager is going to tell you, 'Look, a year from now, I have to write a report that says what this contributed to the country. I can't take a chance that it's not going to contribute to the country.' "

A report by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, released Sept. 10, indicates that at least some in the White House agree. In "Leadership Under Challenge: Information Technology R&D in a Competitive World," John H. Marburger, science advisor to the president, said, "The report highlights in particular the need to ... rebalance the federal networking and IT research and development portfolio to emphasize more large-scale, long-term, multidisciplinary activities and visionary, high-payoff goals."

Still, turning the clock back would not be easy, says Charles Herzfeld, who was ARPA director in the mid-1960s. The freewheeling behavior of the agency in those days might not even be legal today, he adds. (See The IT Godfather Speaks: Q&A With Charles M. Herzfeld.)

No Help From Industry

The U.S. has become the world's leader in IT because of the country's unique combination of government funding, university research, and industrial research and development, says the University of Washington's Lazowska. But just as the government has turned away from long-range research, so has industry, he says.

According to the Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy at the National Academy of Sciences, U.S. industry spent more on tort litigation than on research and development in 2001, the last year for which figures are available. And more than 95% of that R&D is engineering or development, not long-range research, Lazowska says.

 
Ed Lazowska
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Ed Lazowska

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"It's not looking out more than one product cycle; it's building the next release of the product," he says. "The question is, where do the ideas come from that allow you to do that five years from now? A lot of it has come from federally funded university research."

A great deal of fundamental research in IT used to take place at IBM, AT&T Inc. and Xerox Corp., but that has been cut way back, Lazowska says. "And of the new companies -- those created over the past 30 years -- only Microsoft is making significant investments that look out more than one product cycle."

Lazowska isn't expecting another event like Sputnik. "But I do think we are likely to wake up one day and find that China and India are producing far more highly qualified engineers than we are. Their educational systems are improving unbelievably quickly."

Farber also worries about those countries. His "Sputnik" vision is to "wake up and find that all our critical resources are now supplied by people who may not always be friendly." He recalls the book, The Japan That Can Say No (Simon & Schuster), which sent a Sputnik-like chill through the U.S. when it was published in 1991 by suggesting that Japan would one day outstrip the U.S. in technological prowess and thus exert economic hegemony over it.

"Japan could never pull that off because their internal markets aren't big enough, but a China that could say no or an India that could say no could be real," Farber says.

The U.S. has already fallen behind in communications, Farber says. "In computer science, we are right at the tender edge, although I do think we still have leadership there."

Science and Technology Funding

by the U.S. Department of Defense (in millions)

Account FY 2006 Level FY 2007 Estimate FY 2008 Request $ Change FY 07 vs. FY 08 % Change FY 07 vs. FY 08
Total Basic Research $1,457 $1,563 $1,428 -$135 -8.6%
Total Applied Research $4,948 $5,329 $4,357 -$972 -18%
Total Advanced Technology Development $6,866 $6,432 $4,987 -$1,445 -22.4%
Total Science and Technology $13,272 $13,325 $10,772 -$2,553 -19%
Source: The Computing Research Association

Some of the cutbacks in DARPA funding at universities are welcome, says MIT's Zue. "Our reliance on government funding is nowhere near what it was in 1963. In a way, that's healthy, because when a discipline matures, the people who benefit from it ought to begin paying the freight."

"But," Zue adds, "it's sad to see DARPA changing its priorities so that we can no longer rely on it to do the big things."

Related News:

Gary Anthes is a Computerworld national correspondent.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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