The Impact of a Research University: An Information Technology Perspective

Ed Lazowska
Department of Computer Science & Engineering
University of Washington

The University of Washington is one of the nation's premier research universities. For more than twenty years, UW has ranked among the top five institutions in annual Federal research obligations. (Currently UW is second to Johns Hopkins, with Stanford and Michigan in third and fourth positions. Currently UW ranks fifth nationally in industrial R&D support, eighth in licensing revenue from inventions, and eleventh in private giving -- among all institutions, public and private.) The UW faculty includes roughly one hundred members of the National Academies, eight MacArthur Foundation award winners, and four Nobel prize winners in the past decade. More than fifty junior faculty have won NSF/Presidential Young Investigator Awards. A number of programs are ranked among the top dozen in the nation in their fields, including Atmospheric Sciences, Bioengineering, Biostatistics, Cell & Developmental Biology, Computer Science & Engineering, Dentistry, Geography, Neurosciences, Nursing, Oceanography, Pharmacology, Physiology, Psychology, Public Health & Community Medicine, Sociology, Statistics, and Zoology.

What does this mean to the State of Washington and its citizens -- students, parents, and taxpayers? In some cases the answer is well known: UW's preeminence in the medical sciences, for example, has given us Medic One, kidney dialysis, the discovery of fetal alcohol syndrome, some of the finest health care in the nation, and flourishing bioengineering and biotechnology industries featuring companies such as Immunex, Ostex, PhysioControl, and Zymogenetics. This document tells the story from the perspective of another field: information technology, focusing on the Department of Computer Science & Engineering and touching on related programs in the mathematical sciences and in engineering.

A Half Century of Exponential Progress in Information Technology: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How?

There has been mind-boggling progress in information technology, which pervades most aspects of our lives and most aspects of our economy. The nation that leads in information technology enjoys enormous competitive advantages. America owns this leadership today, thanks to a complex interplay between government, academia, and industry.

Industry can afford to look ahead only a few years. The high risk of fundamental research, workforce mobility, difficulty in capitalizing on internal innovations, and shareholder behavior are among the reasons.

As a nation, though, we can and must invest for the long term. America's future depends upon our broad-based leadership in certain key sectors, not on the individual success or failure of specific companies.

By-and-large, this work takes place in universities, with government support. The historical track record is clear: over the course of many decades, federally-supported university research has played a critical role in essentially every aspect of information technology: timesharing, computer networking, workstations, computer graphics, database technology, Very Large Scale Integrated (VLSI) circuit design, Reduced Instruction Set Computer (RISC) architectures, I/O subsystems based upon Redundant Arrays of Inexpensive Disks (RAID), parallel computing, every essential substrate of e-commerce (e.g., web browsers and strong cryptography, in addition to the Internet itself), and others.

Universities transfer technology in two ways. They transfer ideas, by licensing and by placing concepts in the public domain. And they transfer people: students and faculty leave to join or form companies. Close industry/university interactions facilitate this technology transfer, as well as facilitating the exchange of insights about long-term strategic directions. It's this pattern of innovation and technology transfer -- the fluid interaction between academia and industry -- that has made America the world leader in information technology, and that will help us maintain this critical lead.

The unique strength of America's university system is that it combines research and education -- ideas and people. And it's not just graduate education. The single most important factor in shaping my own career was my "adoption" as an undergraduate at Brown University by Professor Andries van Dam. I took his course; I became his teaching assistant; I became his research assistant; I became his protege and friend. And I am not alone. Four other faculty members in my department were Andy's undergraduate students. Recent computer science department chairs at MIT, Maryland, Princeton, and Waterloo, in addition to UW, were Andy's undergraduate students. The person who wrote much of the early software for the Macintosh at Apple, and the person who oversaw the x86 architecture family at Intel, and the person who ran the Windows 95 and Internet Explorer projects at Microsoft, all were Andy's undergraduate students.

That's the kind of program we run at the University of Washington: forefront research, and seamless integration of research with education -- a very special kind of education that takes bright students and brings them to the very forefront.

It's critical not to take a one-dimensional view. Don't try to measure "impact" by a single measure, be it companies created, or technologies licensed, or dollars raised, or programs out-ranked, or students graduated. And don't try to view Washington's higher education system monolithically, for it is a system, with different institutions serving different purposes for different students and different societal needs. You can't get your arms around this with a spreadsheet.

For further information, see the Computing Research Association's web and print brochure Computing Research: A National Investment for Leadership in the 21st Century (, Chapter 1 of the National Research Council report Evolving the High Performance Computing and Communications Initiative to Support the Nation's Information Infrastructure (, and Ed Lazowska's 1996 University of Washington Annual Faculty Lecture, "A Half Century of Exponential Progress in Information Technology: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How" (, plus their associated links.

The University of Washington's Role

The University of Washington is a very special institution. There is nothing else like it in an entire quadrant of the nation -- north of California and west of Illinois. Major research universities such as UW have four principal roles:

  • Education
  • Innovation
  • The transfer of knowledge to society
  • Leadership
    An insightful series of articles appeared in The Oregonian in January 2000 ( -- definitely worth reading in this context.

    UW's research is a major industry: it brings in far more money each year than the state budget of the institution -- more than half a billion dollars during the most recent fiscal year, compared to a state appropriation of less than $350 million. (UW currently ranks second in the nation among all universities, public and private, in Federal research obligations; fifth in industrial R&D support; eighth in licensing revenue from inventions; and eleventh in private giving.)

    Strong programs attract top-flight people to the Northwest, both as students and as faculty.

    These programs provide a first-rate education to Washington residents. The University of Washington Department of Computer Science & Engineering is ranked among the top ten in the nation both for computer science and for computer engineering -- along with Stanford, MIT, Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, Illinois, Texas, and Princeton. UW CSE faculty members Brian Curless, Barbara Mones, Zoran Popovic, and David Salesin teach computer graphics and computer animation to undergraduates in state-of-the-art instructional laboratories equipped with nearly $1 million of equipment and software donated by Silicon Graphics, Inc., Intel, Microsoft, and others, in response to their research contributions and curricular innovations. Undergraduates who excel in these courses become teaching assistants and research assistants -- roughly half of Salesin's research publications have undergraduate co-authors. This is the kind of education that the University of Washington strives to provide.

    At the University of Washington, research and education are inextricably linked: research relationships equip instructional laboratories (for example, recent major donations from Intel and Microsoft have transformed our computing base); research infuses the curriculum; research creates (and funds) opportunities for independent study at the cutting edge; research builds ties to leadership companies that provide co-op and internship (and ultimately permanent employment) opportunities. Videos of our capstone design courses illustrate the way in which we bring UW students to the very forefront of the field.

    UW's graduates form the next generation of Washington's leaders in business, engineering, science, and government.

    These graduates staff high-technology industry. The University of Washington is a leading supplier of new college graduates to Microsoft, and to Intel. The UW Department of Computer Science & Engineering is essentially the only supplier to a number of major regional firms. Every year, UW CSE sends more than 100 outstanding Computer Science and Computer Engineering majors into the Puget Sound area workforce.

    Programs such as CSE import new technology to the Northwest. UW CSE brought the Internet to the Northwest 20 years ago, when a DECsystem-20 in our department became the first computer in a several state region to be attached to what was then ARPANET. The University of Washington's outstanding Computing & Communications organization managed the transition to NSFNet in the middle 1980s, creating and operating NorthWestNet for many years. Today, CSE and C&C in partnership have created the Pacific Northwest GigaPoP, which is bringing next generation Internet technology to our region; a consortium including UW, Microsoft, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Sony, and the National Computational Science Alliance set a new internet speed record in late 1999. Also roughly 20 years ago, the original Very Large Scale Integrated (VLSI) circuit designers in the Northwest were trained in UW CSE, in a program co-sponsored by UW CSE, Boeing, and Caltech. Graduates of that first course built the first microprocessor VAX, the MicroVAX-I, at DECwest Engineering.

    These programs create new technology. In the 1970s, the Pascal compiler for Digital Equipment Corporation's then-new VAX computer was built by UW CSE; the existence of this compiler is given significant credit for the VAX's rapid penetration of the academic market. WebCrawler, the first successful full-text search engine for the World Wide Web, was designed, implemented, and deployed by UW CSE graduate student Brian Pinkerton; WebCrawler was sold to America Online, which in turn sold it to Excite, which currently operates the service. (See history here.) MetaCrawler, the first web meta-search-engine, was invented by UW CSE graduate student Erik Selberg; MetaCrawler was licensed to UW CSE startup Netbot, which in turned licensed it to Go2Net, which currently operates the service. Collaborative research in computer graphics between the University of Washington and Microsoft has led to new products and to new technologies incorporated in existing products -- at the 1996 SIGGRAPH conference, 15 papers (1/3 of the total presented at this premier international conference) were from UW and/or Microsoft: 5 from UW, 7 from Microsoft, and 3 joint. UW research in computer graphics involving Computer Science & Engineering, Mathematics, and Statistics developed a new and powerful modeling method known as "subdivision surfaces." This technology was transfered to Pixar Animation Studios, where it was used in the 1997 Oscar-winning short film "Geri's Game," and then in the Disney/Pixar blockbuster 1998 film "A Bug's Life." Subdivision surfaces are now the modeling method of choice at Pixar; future films will consist almost exclusively of them. UW CSE computer systems technology for x86 application performance tuning, Etch, was licensed to AMD and Appliant by UW's Office of Technology Transfer. The Kimera project has created a new Java security architecture that has impacted the Microsoft and Sun Java virtual machines. OTT recently sold to Digital Equipment Corporation patented UW CSE computer systems technology for the design of high-performance processors incorporating simultaneous multithreading. The BRUTE AI-based datamining technology has been licensed to a number of companies by OTT.

    These programs attract new industry. DECwest Engineering (now Compaq/Seattle), Geoworks/Seattle, and Tera Computer Company are among the companies that were attracted to the region in part because of the strength of UW CSE. (Most of the mobile software for the Nokia 9000 digital cellular phone -- the first phone with integrated Internet access (FAX, web browser and telnet) -- was done by UW CSE undergraduates at Geoworks.)

    These programs create new companies through their graduates. Semiconductor design house IC Designs was founded by John Torode, a UW CSE alumnus, based in part upon UW CSE technology; IC Designs was recently sold to industry leader Cypress Semiconductor. Aldus was co-founded by Jeremy Jaech, a UW CSE alumnus, who went on to found Visio Corporation. Pixar Animation Studios was co-founded by UW CSE alumnus Loren Carpenter. CP/M (Control Program / Microcomputer), the pioneering microcomputer operating system that ultimately lost out to Microsoft's MS-DOS as the operating system for IBM's new personal computer, was designed and implemented by UW CSE alumnus Gary Kildall and his company, Digital Research, Inc.; see four interesting vignettes here: 1 2 3 4. UW CSE alumnus Ken Burkhardt founded Dialogic, a leader in computer telephony. Consystant is a recent UW CSE graduate student startup focused on embedded system design automation tools.

    These programs create new companies through their faculty and discoveries. Statistical Sciences, Inc., a leading supplier of statistical visualization software, was founded by Doug Martin, a UW Statistics faculty member, based in part upon UW Statistics technology. Neopath was founded by Alan Nelson, a UW EE faculty member, based in part upon UW EE technology. Five UW "intelligent Internet agent" technologies were licensed to Netbot, Inc., a UW-derived startup founded by Professors Oren Etzioni and Dan Weld whose flagship product Jango received widespread attention and rave reviews; Netbot (and Jango) were acquired by Excite for $35M -- the second UW CSE technology now owned by Excite, following acquisition of WebCrawler several years ago. The new field of "shape photography" was pioneered by faculty from UW CSE, Mathematics, and Statistics, and the company Manifold Graphics was recently founded to commercialize this technology. In 1996, two additional companies were founded to commercialize UW CSE computer graphics technologies: Inklination (focused on computer-generated pen-and-ink illustration), and Numinous Technologies, Inc. (initially focused on two technologies -- duotone printing and wavelet-based image database querying). Numinous was acquired by Microsoft in 1999. is a company recently created based upon UW CSE's Etch (x86 binary rewriting) and Kimera (secure Java) technologies;'s goal is to radically simplify and improve the management, security, and performance of enterprise and web. UW CSE Professor Dan Weld, a co-founder of Netbot, has gone on to found two more Internet companies: AdRelevance (which was acquired by Media Metrix), and, which has licensed a collection of UW CSE data integration technologies.

    These programs help create a "technology-rich" region, to the benefit of all. UW CSE's annual Affiliates Meeting is a forum for interaction among 75 leadership companies from the region and the nation. Our professional Masters degree program and our colloquium series (broadcast on UWTV and live on the Internet) play significant roles in keeping the region's leading-edge workforce current. Working with UW Educational Outreach we offer 25 multi-course Certificate Programs that enroll more than 3500 students annually. We are actively involved with regional leadership organizations such as the Washington Software Alliance and the Technology Alliance. We have a full suite of outreach programs for K-12, community colleges, and bachelors institutions throughout the state.

    Related Material

  • Overview of the University of Washington Department of Computer Science & Engineering (
  • UW Computer Science & Engineering On Your Desktop (
  • Computing Research: Driving Information Technology and the Information Industry Forward (
  • "A Half Century of Exponential Progress in Information Technology: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How" (1996 University of Washington Annual Faculty Lecture) (
  • TechNet/CRA letter to Congress regarding the FY2000 computing research budget, September 1999 (
  • Vice President Gore's speech at the ENIAC 50th anniversary celebration, February 1996 (
  • Articles from The Oregonian on the role of research universities, January 2000 (

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