Tech leaders call for more government IT research

Critics say Bush administration has put a low priority on computer and cybersecurity R&D

WASHINGTON - Officials from U.S. President George Bush's administration on Thursday defended IT research spending at government agencies during the past four years as critics charged Bush with putting a low priority on computer and cybersecurity research and development.

During a hearing before the U.S. House Science Committee, the directors of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the U.S. Department of Defense's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) said computer science R&D spending has grown during the Bush administration. But Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert, like Bush a Republican, criticized current computer science R&D spending as lacking a focus on long-range research and on cybersecurity.

While there's "broad consensus" that the U.S. government should fund long-term IT and cybersecurity research at universities, current budgets don't reflect those needs, said Boehlert, from New York. "The question is whether current federal funding is in line with the theoretical consensus," he said. "And despite some rather defensive testimony we'll hear today, one has to conclude that the answer is 'no.'"

John Marburger, OSTP director, defended Bush's IT research budgets as "adequate" as other priorities, such as domestic security and the Iraq war, have demanded budget dollars. Bush's 2006 budget request for the multi-agency Networking and Information Technology Research and Development Program [NITRD], the U.S. government's primary program for long-term IT-related research, is $2.16 billion, which "basically holds steady" from fiscal year 2005, Marburger said.

Bush's 2006 NITRD budget includes $803 million for the National Science Foundation, up from $795 million in the 2005 budget, according to OSTP documents. But the total cross-agency NITRD budget declined about $100 million from 2005 to the 2006 request, and DARPA NITRD funding has declined from $263 million to $176 million from fiscal year 2002 to the 2006 request.

NITRD funding has risen since Bush took office in 2001, according to OSTP. Fiscal year 2001 NITRD spending was $1.77 billion, and National Science Foundation funding for NITRD rose 25 percent between 2002 and the 2006 request, Marburger said.

But two technology representatives questioned a hold-steady IT research budget while developing nations are challenging U.S. leadership in the technology industry. U.S. computing networks -- and the communications, utility and transportation systems they control -- remain vulnerable to cyber attacks because of a lack of cybersecurity research funding, said Thomson Leighton, cofounder and chief scientist at Akamai Technologies, which operates 15,000 Web servers in 70 nations.

"All elements of the nation's infrastructure are insecure if IT is insecure, and today our IT is insecure," Leighton said. "Our national defense systems are also at risk, because the military increasingly relies on many of the same vulnerable IT systems as the civilian sector."

Leighton and William Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering, focused much of their complaints on the DARPA budget available to fund university-based IT research, saying the agency responsible for the early development of the Internet has shifted its focus away from long-term IT research in favor of short-term projects more geared toward incremental improvements to existing technology.

"The computer science community ... has adapted its behavior accordingly," Wulf said. "More time is spent writing proposals rather than doing research, more failed projects are recycled, more incremental and less bold ideas are advanced."

If DARPA had diverted funding from long-term research during the Vietnam and Cold wars, "crazy ideas" like the Internet and parallel computing may not have been invented at the time, Wulf suggested.

But DARPA's director disputed the testimony of Wulf and Leighton. DARPA's Anthony Tether noted that his agency has shifted much of its IT research toward creating cognitive computing systems with artificial intelligence, and he questioned how critics could call cognitive computing research a short-term project.

Tether also suggested that DARPA's NITRD funding numbers don't tell the whole story, because some new IT-related DARPA funding has gone into new projects not covered by NITRD. He didn't have budget numbers for these new projects immediately available to the committee.

As the Iraq war and anti-terrorism efforts have become Defense Department priorities, DARPA has focused some of its attention on projects that can support troops, Tether added. "Yes, we are doing things in Iraq that are saving people's lives," he said.

But Tether also told the committee that in recent weeks, DARPA conducted an exercise that stopped an altered version of the so-called Slammer worm from spreading across a computer network. The Slammer worm first appeared in January 2003, and Tether said the details of how DARPA modified the worm and how it halted it are currently classified, to avoid giving information to worm-writers.

Wulf and Leighton criticized Tether for not sharing DARPA's potentially effective worm-stopping methods with broader industry, but questioned if those methods were truly effective when DARPA had focused on stopping a 2-year-old worm.

While Wulf and Leighton questioned DARPA's commitment to long-term IT research, one Republican representative said the Bush administration's focus on short-term, results-oriented research was the correct approach.

"The question is whether we should channel the amount of money being spent on research into esoteric projects at the universities that may or may not ever come to fruition and help anybody," said Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican. "Or should we be channeling more of that money into research necessary to develop some of these ideas that have been discovered through research in the past and can actually change the life of someone?"

But without long-term research, more results-oriented research will eventually dry up as well, Wulf said. Most technologies have a 15-year life-cycle, or "pipeline," to move from the research laboratory to commercial products, he said.

"Only a few of these ideas will, in fact, become commercial, and we have no good way to predict which of them will be the most important," Wulf said. "Thus, if one stops filling the pipeline, the effect on industry will not be immediately visible as it drains the pipeline ... but that there will be an impact is an inescapable lesson of history."