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The Vision Thing, continued

What Congress Should Do

    However you view it, the science of robotics seems to demand an understanding of human behavior, and that’s 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 that’s 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 Bajcsy’s CISE budget by $146 million.
   
The impetus for this new surge of commitment to IT comes largely from an August 1998 report from the President’s 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 government’s 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 we’re 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." That’s 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 government’s 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 nation’s 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 it’s a good idea to spend money this way. And I’ll 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 it–if we get it–so 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 smoothly–she’s had practice–for the less computer literate:
   
Software: "Software 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."
   
High-end computing: "This means research in advanced supercomputing. It’s 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 she’ll be accountable for the direction CISE takes in choosing projects for funding. "I’ll 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 applicant’s field review and grade the research proposal, tends to be "a little conservative. Fundamentally it’s 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 skeptical–an attitude, unfortunately, of ‘it wasn’t invented here.’ But I’m 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 that’s too little. She’d also like to see more of that money channeled toward the support of young researchers.
   
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 Bajcsy’s next two years in Washington, too.

Sonia Ellis EAS’86 is a freelance writer on science and technology. She last wrote for the Gazette in June 1998 on the El Niño weather phenomenon.

 

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