The Vision Thing,
Congress Should Do
However you view it, the science
of robotics seems to demand an understanding of human behavior, and thats
a resource that Bajcsy will also need on Capitol Hill. John Hennessy,
dean of engineering at Stanford University and chair of the search committee
that selected Bajcsy, knew that the job would draw on all her "people"
skills. "We were looking for someone who would work well with the
other assistant directors at NSF, in engineering as well as science. And
I think thats a thing Ruzena can do well," Hennessy says. "We
were looking, also, for someone with her stature and recognition among
the computer-science and engineering-research community, so that people
would have faith in her doing a good job."
Bajcsy handles a budget this
year of $330 million, which she hopes to increase substantially over her
two-year term. For that, she seems to be in the right place at the right
time. NSF will be the lead agency in a Clinton Administration initiative
called Information Technology for the 21st Century (IT2). In February,
NSF requested a record $4 billion for fiscal year 2000, with plans to
increase Bajcsys CISE budget by $146 million.
The impetus for this new
surge of commitment to IT comes largely from an August 1998 report from
the Presidents Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC),
which was set up two years ago to help the administration identify which
technologies would keep the United States a frontrunner in IT. Its interim
report to the president warned that the governments research agenda
was, in essence, myopic and dangerously under-funded. PITAC concluded
that federal investments in IT research and development must increase,
and that the focus must shift away from short-term projects toward long-term
fundamental research. The difference, says Hennessy, is like "thinking
about how were going to run the Internet when there are a billion
people on it, not thinking about what the next service will be in the
next few months." Thats an apt analogy; it was federal investment
in basic research during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations that
eventually brought the Internet to life. Lately, according to PITAC, only
about 5 percent of the governments IT budget has been spent on projects
that extend beyond five years.
The committee recommended
an additional $1 billion over the next five years to fuel long-term IT
research. That sort of investment is not likely to come from industry,
which is directing its support toward the development of commercial products
with short-term profits. Yet information technology has emerged as a potent
player in the nations economy; NSF cites estimates (from IT analysts)
that the IT industry has spurred about a third of all U.S. economic growth
over the past 10 years.
Bajcsy says her first challenge
as the new CISE director will be "convincing the Congress to give
us the money that the White House is proposing. We have to go to the Hill
and convince them that its a good idea to spend money this way.
And Ill be very busy with that until October." If all goes
well, "the next challenge is how to energize the scientific community
to do the best work they can. In other words, how to spend the money once
we get itif we get itso that there is indeed some significant
progress made," she says.
In deciding how to distribute
the funds available, Bajcsy can turn to the PITAC for some guidelines.
The committee has named four recommended research priorities, which Bajcsy
translates smoothlyshes had practicefor the less computer
is what runs on every computer and what makes the computer do things.
We need to improve our understanding of software, especially large-scale
systems, and look at issues like software design, production and reliability."
Scalable information infrastructures:
"Scalability comes up again and again in computer systems, with respect
to the speed of the machine, the size of the data and the programs, and
the different sizes of machines and how they can work together."
"This means research in advanced supercomputing. Its really
for these big problems like simulations of A-bombs, global changes in
the environment and weather forecasting."
Socio-economic and workforce
issues: "This category is looking at the effect of computer technology
on people. How will that affect their daily lives?"
As the person holding the
purse strings, Bajcsy knows that shell be accountable for the direction
CISE takes in choosing projects for funding. "Ill be charting
where this field should go. Money can influence these things, so I feel
very responsible," she says.
With her own history of looking at research
problems in a new way, Bajcsy thinks that the NSF peer-review system,
in which established researchers in an applicants field review and
grade the research proposal, tends to be "a little conservative.
Fundamentally its a good process, because it gives you checks and
balances. But there are some bad effects. If you have a very new idea,
then people get skepticalan attitude, unfortunately, of it
wasnt invented here. But Im trying to influence that
now, especially with the new IT initiative. I will try to push more of
the risky and imaginative projects."
If Congress okays the budget
for the IT initiative, the additional funding will mean that CISE can
award more grants. Right now roughly 20 percent to 30 percent of research
proposals are approved, and Bajcsy thinks thats too little. Shed
also like to see more of that money channeled toward the support of young
Some 20 years ago, the same
concern inspired her to start the GRASP lab. "Part of my motivation
in creating this lab was to make an environment where young people can
really flourish. I take a tremendous pleasure out of that," she says.
"I like to see these young people have a place where they can really
use their imaginations and test them against reality."
Use your imagination and
then deal with reality. That could be a good recipe for Bajcsys
next two years in Washington, too.
Sonia Ellis EAS86 is a freelance writer on
science and technology. She last wrote for the Gazette in June
1998 on the El Niño weather phenomenon.