Saturday, April 02, 2005

Dwindling research funding in the U.S.

Today's New York Times has an article by John Markoff titled 'Pentagon Redirects Its Research Dollars'. The lead paragraph:
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency at the Pentagon - which has long underwritten open-ended "blue sky" research by the nation's best computer scientists - is sharply cutting such spending at universities, researchers say, in favor of financing more classified work and narrowly defined projects that promise a more immediate payoff.
Others have already commented on this article: it is interesting to read it in conjunction with the latest David Patterson letter in CACM. One of the most fascinating tables in this letter is a chart outlining the evolution (in terms of money, and where the research was done) of many of the most important technologies available today. Technology transfer is a rather overused buzzword, but this chart really shows how technology moves between academia and industrial research labs (in both directions), and then to commercial settings. If ever one wanted proof of the value of academic "blue-sky" research, this is it.

As always, there are a number of related trends:
  • In a previous letter, David Patterson lamented the increasing submission loads to various conferences. If you look at the chart of NSF funding requests and acceptances over the past few years, it looks strikingly similar.
  • Research is becoming more conservative; again, David Patterson in his two letters cites the lack of 'out-there' conference papers as well as the 'chilling effect' of funding on truly innovative grant proposals.
It is not hard to see why these are related: in a highly competitive conference (and funding) acceptance scenario, papers are not accepted; they are merely 'not rejected'. In other words, we find reasons to eliminate papers rather than accept them. What this means that is you have to have a cast-iron presentation of a paper/grant; anything that can get shot down, will. Thus, more outlandish and innovative proposals die.

Being conservative about accepting 'out-there' papers is not necessarily a bad thing; however, I'd argue that one cannot afford to be conservative about funding new ideas: to use a rather abhorrent analogy, funding is like the VC seed capital for a company, and conference/journal peer review is like the market place; if you cut off the source of innovation, there is no fuel for good ideas to emerge.

One has to ask though: How much is ACM itself responsible for this state of affairs ? I have read more interesting articles in CACM in the past three months than I had in the prior 7 years, and I am truly grateful that David Patterson is raising issues that are familiar to all of us in research. However, the ACM, over the past many years, has morphed from one of the truly representative computer science organizations (many foundational research results were published in CACM in days gone by), to an IT trade organization. The ACM does not speak to me anymore, at a time when an active lobbying group for basic computer science research has never been more important.

Part of this, for better or for worse, has been the explosion in the IT industry over the last ten years. With the kind of money pouring into the IT world, it probably made sense to cater to the needs of IT professionals. However, companies are fickle creatures; one of the main problems we face right now is the lack of industrial funding for basic research, something that used to be a big part of the computer science landscape.

Let's be clear here: DARPA is right that if they are
devoting more attention to "quick reaction" projects that draw on the fruits of earlier science and technology to produce useful prototypes as soon as possible.
then they don't need to fund university research (and in fact academic researchers wouldn't want to work on these problems). Their mistake of course is not seeing the value of long-term fundamental research even now, but you have to ask: when the flagship magazine of the most well known computer science organization cannot be distinguished from a random trade magazine, who's to tell the difference between academic research and corporate software efforts ?

Hat tip to Chandra Chekuri for pointing out the above articles.

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