SCIENCE & ENGINEERING NEWS
Washington, D.C. — The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced its first grants under the new $90 million Information Technology Research (ITR) initiative. The awards, which will spur fundamental research and innovative applications of IT, are a step toward building on U.S. leadership in this area of growing importance to the economy.
Selected from over 1,400 proposals, the newly funded activities will promote IT-driven science and engineering. Included are 62 large projects that will average $1 million per year for three to five years, involving 41 institutions in 22 states. Another 148 smaller projects will each total $500,000 or less for up to three years, involving 81 institutions in 32 states.
“This initiative will help strengthen America’s leadership in a sector that has accounted for one-third of U.S. economic growth in recent years,” said President Bill Clinton. “High technology is generating jobs that pay 85 percent more than the average private sector wage. I am pleased that the National Science Foundation is expanding its investment in long-term information technology research. I urge the Congress to provide full funding for NSF so that they can continue to make these kinds of investments in America’s future.”
“These projects represent major innovations in information technology, rather than routine applications of existing technology,” said NSF director Rita Colwell. “Our strategy to support long-term, high-risk research responds to a challenge from the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC), which called for increased federal investment to maintain the U.S. lead in this important sector of the global economy.”
ITR emphasizes the subject areas of software; scalable information infrastructure; information management; revolutionary computing; human-computer interfaces; advanced computational science; education and workforce; and social or economic implications of IT. The program’s main goals are to augment the nation’s IT knowledge base and strengthen the IT workforce.
“The response has been overwhelming,” said Ruzena Bajcsy, who heads the NSF Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE). “Because fund requests by proposers exceeded $3.2 billion, there were many more worthwhile projects proposed than we are able to support. The volume and quality of proposals are strong evidence justifying our desire to triple NSF’s ITR budget over the next five years.”
Funded projects include a University of Pittsburgh human- computer interface effort that will use advanced vision technology to develop personal robotic assistants that could help the elderly live more independently. At the University of Colorado, computer scientists and a plant geneticist will design interfaces to speed the analysis of viruses, bacteria and other genomes.
A major ITR emphasis is “middleware” – software that enhances the interaction of operating systems and their applications. For example, the University of Illinois will design middleware to optimize the efficiency and faulttolerance of network-based computer programs for air-traffic control, smart highways, satellites, remote surgery and electronic commerce.
ITR’s Scalable Information Infrastructure area emphasizes innovation in network-based access to distributed data. One example is a collaboration in which the University of California- Berkeley, Mills College of Oakland, CA, and private industry are partnering to construct a largescale prototype of error-sensing software that would automatically repair data.
The California Institute of Technology will establish an Institute for Quantum Information to experiment with algorithms that process data via quantum physical processes – a revolutionary method that could eventually make even the fastest silicon chips obsolete.
Among the largest awards is a five-year, $7.2 million grant to Duke University for research into “bioinformatics,” which applies IT to solve such riddles as how protein structure determines the function of an enzyme. In a partnership that includes the University of Chicago, the University of Florida will also receive a large award -$11.8 million over five years – to let computer scientists and physicists collaborate in developing tools to analyze massive amounts of data from particle colliders and astronomical observatories.
Bridging the “digital divide” is a key goal of the ITR emphasis on societal implications. Projects include studies by Michigan State University and the City University of New York to identify factors that influence the effectiveness of IT in the classrooms and homes of disadvantaged children. The University of California-Irvine will study the adoption of electronic commerce worldwide, comparing data from technologically advanced countries with newly industrialized and developing nations.
Northeastern University and Boston University will collaborate in an education and workforce project to form a virtual community of African American scholars in IT. Students, professionals and educators will interact on-line via this “Human Capital Development” project, seeking to increase the representation of African Americans in IT.
NSF has also just kicked off its second ITR competition. The foundation’s ITR budget request for fiscal 2001 is $190 million of additional funding, although the actual appropriation is yet to be determined by Congress.