Business Software

IT Innovation: On the Skids

Gone Astray

"We have kind of lost our way in some respects," says Vinton Cerf, chief Internet evangelist at Google Inc. and another Internet pioneer. "We have a significant diminution of industrial long-term research in IT, and we have seen one of the major federal sources of IT research -- DARPA -- essentially withdraw from a lot of that. Historically, DARPA would accept that it might take five to 10 years for an idea to yield anything."

Cerf says we should get used to the idea that countries like China will catch up with us in technology, simply because they have far more people. In fact, he says he doesn't like the word competitiveness because it suggests an adversarial relationship. He says he'd prefer that scientists and engineers work across borders to collaborate openly and publish their results.

Cerf suggests that the new administration encourage immigration by the most talented science and engineering students. "I've always been puzzled by the H1-B issue, because for the past decade or two, the major fraction of researchers at universities have been from outside," he says.

"They are the crème de la crème, because they can't get in otherwise," he says. "Maybe they go home and maybe they stay, but they contribute mightily to the health of research and add a great deal of value to U.S. research initiatives."

Henry Chesbrough shares that goal. "We are losing our ability to attract the best and brightest at the graduate level to come to the U.S.," says the executive director of the Center for Open Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley. "There are two reasons," he explains. "Our concerns about security and immigration have caused us to be perceived as less welcoming. And the options back in the home countries are better than they have ever been. So at precisely the time we need to be more competitive to attract and keep these people, we are pushing them away."

But attracting bright Ph.D. students is one challenge, funding their work is another. According to the AAAS, total federal funding for R&D at universities has risen slightly recently but, adjusted for inflation, has declined in each of the past two years.

Kleinrock says he is troubled by how campus researchers are changing the way they approach research in order to win the kind of short-term funding that comes from DARPA. "A lot of people are resorting to simulation, and that's fine, except they don't stop to ask what's behind the results they get," he says. "They are not being pushed to get a fundamental understanding; they are looking for the answers now, for this system, for today."

He says he worries that this short-term view of science will propagate from professor to student in a way that weakens subsequent generations of researchers.

Of course, given the current economic turmoil, most everyone sees other critical needs pushing R&D even further down the list of federal priorities. "Yes," Chesbrough admits, "that's going to make this deferred gratification even more difficult to accomplish."

Cerf says that while he's "deeply concerned" about the state of long-term research in IT in the U.S., he advises IT people to put it in perspective. "IT research is probably less utterly critical than, say, energy and the environment or, for that mater, figuring out what to do about health care and entitlement programs that are destroying our ability to have discretionary funding. You can't do research without discretionary funding."

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