America's leadership in information technology is the result of an extraordinarily complex and fruitful long-term partnership among government, industry, and academia

The pace of progress in information technology is so exhilarating that it's tempting to take it for granted -- to assume that it's the result of "natural forces" rather than of careful investments and a highly effective partnership in which fundamental research in computing, information and communications -- particularly that sponsored by the Department of Defense Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (through its Information Technology Office) and by the National Science Foundation (through its Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering) -- plays a key role.

It's a fact that for several decades now, the amount of computation, storage, and communication that a dollar will buy has doubled every eighteen to twenty-four months. This successive doubling -- this exponential growth -- is responsible for the fact that technologies such as the Internet move from near invisibility to near ubiquity in a very small number of years. Of course, the truth is that the Internet (begun as ARPANET and evolved as NSFnet) celebrated its 25th anniversary several years ago -- it's been busily doubling away below most people's radar screens for most of that time. And this doubling, as will be discussed in more detail shortly, has been driven by federal investments in university research, and by the transfer, to existing and new companies, of the people and ideas that are the products of this research.

"Progress in information technology just happens," then, is one myth. Another myth arises from the enormous visibility and success of so many companies in the information technology sector: that this innovation has been driven largely by industry, and that industry can be exclusively relied upon to provide it in the future.

If you were to watch the television advertisements, you'd likely conclude that the technology underlying the nation's information infrastructure sprung forth from the minds of companies such as Microsoft and GTE. In truth, while these companies and others will play critical roles in evolving this technology and bringing it to consumers, the foundations of the technology clearly lie in federally-funded research programs which have been transferring ideas and people to the private sector for decades. As a recent study of the High Performance Computing and Communications Initiative by the National Research Council states:

"Indeed, for nearly 50 years, federal investment has helped to train the people and stimulate the ideas that have made today's computers and many of their applications possible. Federal support early in the life cycle of many ideas has advanced them from novelties, to convincing demonstrations that attract private investment, to products and services that ultimately add to the quality of U.S. life." (Page 16)
To cite a few examples of this, federal research investments played critical roles in technologies such as timesharing, computer networking, workstations, computer graphics, "windows and mouse" user interfaces, database systems, expert or knowledge-based systems, Very Large Scale Integrated (VLSI) circuit design, Reduced Instruction Set Computer (RISC) architectures, I/O subsystems based upon Redundant Arrays of Inexpensive Disks (RAID), and parallel computing.

To see how these advances fit together to create whole new possibilities for people, consider as an example the research base on which Congress's Thomas information system rests. The revolutionary packet-switched data communication technology that forms the Internet stemmed from DARPA-funded research that started in the 1960s at sites such as UCLA, Stanford, MIT, and BBN. In the early 1980s, ARPANET transitioned to NSFnet as the National Science Foundation took responsibility for broadening access (which involved confronting research issues of scale, in addition to simply expanding deployment). The global Internet as we know it today evolved over time as the Internet Protocol suite gained widespread acceptance due to its technological superiority and to the fact that it was in the public domain. NSF's current privatization of the Internet is an important milestone, but we must not lose sight of the fact that privatization actually has progressed steadily as the technology evolved under NSF sponsorship: for many years the backbone traffic has been increasingly carried by a commercial telecommunications company (MCI), and dozens of highly successful companies (3Com, Cisco, and Fore are examples) have been spawned along the way. Under their HPCC program responsibilities, DARPA and NSF continue to fund research that pushes the state of the art in very high speed data communication, and to support the gigabit testbeds that explore research applications of these advanced networks. It is precisely this sort of ground-breaking research that will enable America to lead the world in the technologies that will make possible the global-scale information infrastructure of the 21st century.

The Thomas system also relies on many other technologies. The data query system for searching bills comes from information search and retrieval research conducted at the University of Massachusetts under DARPA sponsorship. The "Web browsers" used to retrieve information from Thomas -- such as the one you are using at this moment -- are based on the Mosaic system developed at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, funded by NSF as part of the HPCC program. (Millions of public domain copies of NCSA Mosaic have been obtained from NCSA, and tens of millions of commercial copies of Enhanced NCSA Mosaic have been licensed through Spyglass. NCSA started an entire new segment of the information industry with Mosaic, and populated and/or inspired all of the competing companies: Spyglass, Netscape, Spry, Microsoft, etc.) And these are only the most recent antecedents -- the roots reach back to long-term information technology research performed in a wide variety of university, industrial, and government laboratories over the past two decades.

The preceding example makes clear that the partnership responsible for America's leadership in information technology is the result of long-term, steady investment. To disrupt it would be to damage the future in two ways: specific technology that would not be developed (in the U.S., anyway), and the destruction of a partnership that could not be reassembled "on demand" when we realized in a few years that we were falling behind.

Back to Computing Research: Driving Information Technology and the Information Industry Forward (
Copyright 1995, 1996, 1997 by Edward D. Lazowska and the Computing Research Association. Portions adapted with permission from "Evolving the High Performance Computing and Communications Initiative to Support the Nation's Information Infrastructure," copyright 1995 by the National Academy of Sciences, courtesy of the National Academy Press, Washington DC.