It is nearly impossible to predict where and when the next major breakthrough will occur. However, one can examine objectives and derive ideas of where research investments could be strategically made. Several years ago the Computing Research Association, in cooperation with a variety of government, industry, and academic individuals and organizations, sponsored a meeting to outline a research agenda aimed at realizing the vision of the National Information Infrastructure. The results were published in the report R&D for the NII: Technical Challenges. More recently, the National Science and Technology Council's Committee on Computing, Information and Communications, chaired by Dr. Anita K. Jones, Defense Director of Research and Engineering, produced a Strategic Implementation Plan through a process co-chaired by Dr. Paul Young, then NSF's Assistant Director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering, and Mr. John Toole, then head of DARPA's Computer Systems Technology Office and now Director of the National Coordination Office for Computing, Information and Communication. The plan, America in the Age of Information, identified six Strategic Focus Areas "to focus fundamental information and communications research and to accelerate development in ways that are responsive to NSTC's overarching goals, agency mission goals, and our Nation's long term economic and defense needs." These Strategic Focus Areas are global-scale information infrastructure technologies, high performance / scalable systems, high confidence systems, virtual environments, user-centered interfaces and tools, and human resources and education.
A natural question, in light of the history of success and the promise for the future, is "Why shouldn't industry take responsibility for funding information technology research?" There are two answers to this question, both developed in detail in the National Research Council HPCCI study, from which we will briefly quote:
"First, ... few companies will invest for a payoff that is 10 years away, and even a company that does make a discovery may postpone using it. The vitality of the information technology industry depends heavily on new companies, but new companies cannot easily afford to do research; furthermore, industry in general is doing less research now than in the recent past. But because today's sales are based on yesterday's research, investment in innovation must go forward so that the nation's information industry can continue to thrive.In short, it is not the role of companies to look ten to fifteen years out. Rather, it is the role of companies to identify great ideas and turn them into great products, returning the nation's investment through jobs, taxes, productivity increases, and world leadership. And by-and-large, it has always been thus. The NRC HPCC study includes the following remarkable quotation from Alexander Hamilton, from the 1791 Report on Manufactures:
"Second, it is hard to predict which new ideas and approaches will succeed. The exact course of exploratory research cannot be planned in advance, and its progress cannot be measured precisely in the short term. The purpose of publicly funded research is to advance knowledge and create new opportunities that industry can exploit in the medium and long term, not to determine how the market should develop." (Page 4)
"The government-supported research program (on the order of $1 billion for information technology R&D) is small compared to industrial R&D (on the order of $20 billion), but it constitutes a significant portion of the research component, and it is a critical factor because it supports the exploratory work that is difficult for industry to afford, allows the pursuit of ideas that may lead to success in unexpected ways, and nourishes the industry of the future, creating jobs and benefits for ourselves and our children. The industrial R&D investment, though larger in dollars, is different in nature: it focuses on the near term -- increasingly so, as noted earlier -- and is thus vulnerable to major opportunity costs." (Page 24)
"Industry, if left to itself, will naturally find its way to the most useful and profitable employment. Whence it is inferred that manufacturers, without the aid of government, will grow up as soon and as fast as the natural state of things and the interest of the community may require.The information technology research supported by the Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and by the National Science Foundation exactly fulfills these objectives. In the 1960s DARPA and NSF started programs that were instrumental in developing the disciplines of computer science and computer engineering in universities across the nation. DARPA's efforts tended to be focused on large investments at a modest number of sites. NSF's efforts tended to involve smaller investments in a larger number of areas. These two models complemented one another perfectly, giving the nation a balanced portfolio of research in information technology which led directly to America's undisputed world leadership in this field. In turn, the contribution of this field to the nation's economic, social, and military security has been quite literally incalculable.
"Against the solidity of this hypothesis ... very cogent reasons may be offered ... [including] the strong influence of habit; the spirit of imitation; the fear of want of success in untried enterprises; [and] the intrinsic difficulties incident to first essays towards [competition with established foreign players]: the bounties, premiums, and other artificial encouragements with which foreign nations second the exertions of their own citizens ...
"To produce the desirable changes as early as may be expedient may therefore require the incitement and patronage of government."
We cannot rest, though. To quote one final time from the NRC HPCC study:
"Our lead in information technology is fragile, and it will slip away if we fail to adapt. Leadership has often shifted in a few product generations, and a generation in the information industry can be less than 2 years. As a nation we must continue to foster the flow of fresh ideas and trained minds that have enabled the U.S. information technology enterprise as a whole to remain strong despite the fate of individual companies." (Page 16)