May 11, 2005 4:00 AM PDT

Perspective: Surrendering U.S. leadership in IT

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Surrendering U.S. leadership in IT
A hearing this week in Washington will determine whether the United States will lead critical IT innovation in the 21st century.

The hearing, to be conducted Thursday by the House Science Committee, will focus on the state of research funding for information technology. Such funding, and the innovation it spurs, is vital to the U.S. economy and national defense.

Some historical perspective illuminates what's at stake. In 1957, the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union sent a wake-up call to the U.S. In response, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was created and charged with preventing such technological surprises in the future. DARPA funded high-risk, high-reward research and sought to engage the best minds.

Since then, innovation in U.S. IT has grown substantially under government-funded research and has been critical to this nation's leadership in technology. DARPA, together with the National Science Foundation, funds most academic IT research in this country. In addition to swatting home runs such as the Internet, the majority of IT companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange and the Nasdaq, and the most technically advanced military in the world, IT research has become a key economic driver. In the last decade alone, IT was responsible for 9 percent of the United States' gross national product. In 2001, a National Academies of Science and Engineering report gave 19 examples of IT research leading to industries worth a billion dollars or more. Federally funded academic research played a major role in every case.

Over the last 10 years, however, there's been a major shift in funding priorities and policy at DARPA and the National Science Foundation. The current DARPA policy, which mandates 12-month "go/no go" research milestones for IT, has shortened deadlines, thus discouraging long-term research. In addition, programs formerly open to academics are now classified; other programs have citizenship restrictions. In three years, DARPA halved academic IT research to $123 million in fiscal year 2004. DARPA today is no longer engaging all the best talent in long-term research, which has been so vital to America's prowess in defense and essential to a robust economy.

Ironically, the high tech industry increasingly depends on government-funded research partnerships with academic institutions to spur innovations.
The effects of this significant funding shift are far-reaching and long-lasting. In the last five years, IT proposals to the National Science Foundation jumped from 2,000 to 6,500, forcing the agency to leave many worthy proposals unfunded. Sadly, other agencies are not stepping in to take up the challenge. The Department of Homeland Security, which some hoped would augment the Science Foundation and DARPA, spends just a few million dollars per year for IT research. NASA also is downsizing its IT effort; in March it encouraged all but 70 of its 1,400 employees at its Silicon Valley center to retire.

Nor can we count on the IT industry itself for long-term research investment. Ironically, the high-tech industry increasingly depends on government-funded research partnerships with academic institutions to spur innovations. Those new companies that sprang to life in the recent past--Oracle, Dell, Cisco Systems--have no research labs. And of the established IT companies, only IBM and Microsoft maintain large and growing research arms.

If declining U.S. research funding simply slowed the pace of IT innovation, perhaps the upcoming House Science Committee hearing wouldn't be as critical to the nation as it is to the research community. However, the rest of the world isn't standing still.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao recently went to India to propose co-development of the next generation of IT, with China producing hardware and India developing software. He predicted the coming of the Asian century of the IT industry, as both countries strive for worldwide leadership in IT.

The history of IT is littered with companies that lost substantial leads in this fast-changing field. I see no reason why it couldn't happen to countries. Indeed, at the recent International Collegiate Programming Contest of the Association for Computing Machinery, four Asian teams finished in the top dozen, including the champion, while the best U.S. finish was 17th, the country's worst showing ever. If current U.S. government policies continue, IT leadership could easily be surrendered to Asia.

Allow me to suggest two questions for the hearing: Could loss of IT leadership--meaning, for example, that the IT available to the U.S. might be inferior to that of China or India--lead to a technological surprise akin to the one with Sputnik 50 years ago? And, if the U.S. must face serious competition for leadership, isn't it better to attract the best and brightest to U.S. universities to come and work to help grow the American economy, rather than have them innovate elsewhere?

Biography
David A. Patterson is president of the Association for Computing Machinery and holds the Pardee Chair of Computer Science at the University of California, Berkeley. He is a member of the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee and the National Academy of Engineering.

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The Power Is In Their Hands!
What ever will be the destiny of the United States Information Technology industry... and the country's capability of maintaining its military preparedness (Lest we forget 9/11) rest with today's decision-makers - decisions that may come back to haunt a technologically slipping America (finishing 17th. at the recently held International Collegiate Programming Contest of the Association for Computing Machinery) for centuries to come. America Wake Up!
Posted by (187 comments )
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Missing (or ignoring) an important point
Globalization. Whether we are talking about government funding for IT research or engineering enrollment, the point this article fails to recognize is that the IT system is not closed. Why should use taxpayers heavily fund government R&D for companies that will then build big labs and plants around that R&D in India and China? Why should students devote 5-8 years getting a degree in a field for which companies are not hiring in the US but are in India and China?

If globalization is a fact of life (I believe it is), then does it make sense to subsidize our new global competitors with taxpayer dollars? If we are really serious about maintaining our global IT leadership, why import foreign labor and students? The message sent to US labor and students is "don't bother". India and China no longer need America's help, because they are eating our lunch.
Posted by (45 comments )
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An Old Saying!
There is an old saying that "Necessity is the Mother of Invention". Given the fact that someone on the management team at Microsoft did not take the opportunity to spend those extra years in college and is now quite happy (at least financially)... and the fact that you said that "the people from India and China will no longer need America's help because they are eating the lunches of America's graduates and labor..." Then, why can't America's graduates and labor come up with counter strategies for taking "big" bites of the "dinners" of the folks from China and India by bringing back jobs and industries to American shores by - S-T-A-R-T-I-N-G Y-O-U-R O-W-N B-U-S-I-N-E-S-S-S-S!!! Why not try "NearShoring"?
Posted by (187 comments )
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Fear Mongering
I cannot believe the crap that CNET publishes.

The chances of India or China surpasing the West in IT is ZERO. Look, buddy, the Japanese have had access to wealth beyond dreams for 30 years and they have done nothing with it.

Just more fear-mongering.

On the other hand, if I knew as little as the average Professor of Computer Science, I would be worried, too.
Posted by (88 comments )
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Will there be Any Retreat, Will there be Any Surrender!
While I am not quite sure how you arrive at your views; but, from all appearances it appears that some areas of the American economy have for sometime now felt the effects of the "out-sourcing" strategies that some of American businesses were forced to venture into, and I suppose quite a few of us know where these job opportunities ended up! (in fact, the out-sourcing practices of some US businesses as well as that of some US Cities' Departments were political hot "potatoes" in the run up to the last US Presidential Elections)... Today, IBM's PC Business is now in the hands of the Chinese owned Lenovo, The Indian company, Wipro Technologies has followed closely behind the heels of Infosys to also stake a claim in the American marketplace. Question: If these trends are to continue - will there be any retreat, will there be any surrender of the US's IT prowess to these countries!!!
Posted by (187 comments )
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Huh?
Yeah, those Japanese just did not capitalize on industries like automobiles and electronics when they had the chance.
Posted by (45 comments )
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Fear dangerous things
Cnet's headline may have been inaccurate: surrendering is
active, but what is happening is passive--letting them win by
not playing hard. And Japan has indeed done well. Toyota will
soon be the world's #1 automaker, replacing GM in that spot,
and in electronics and computers we have Sony, Hitachi, Toshiba
et al. Fear mongering is what Fox and Homeland Security do, but
it's not smart to ignore real threats like the rise of India and
China, even if your government chooses to do so.
Posted by neilley (3 comments )
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Sputnik etc.
I thought that what Sputnik proved was that we didn't get enough of the Peenemunders back in 1945.
Posted by (1 comment )
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MIT Places 8th in ICPC, Not 17th
The ICPC team fielded by the MIT placed 8th in the world in the 2006 contest held in San Antonio last week. ACM President Dave Patterson was mistaken when making the clam that the, "best U.S. finish was 17th."

In fact, the MIT team had the notable distinction of solving their first problem in 10 minutes, the fastest of all teams present.

It is also worth noting that all teams from 3rd to 10th place solved the same number of problems (5) and rank was decided by a difference of as few as 5 minutes in the time taken to submit correct solutions. It would be an understatement to say that the top teams were of very similar skill.

Though the U.S. might not have brought home a gold medal from the ICPC this year, we still put forward very strong contenders. I hope that Mr. Patterson will remember our strong showing, especially our speed, when making further statements about U.S. technical leadership.
Posted by jagoodwi (1 comment )
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