Pentagon agency cuts in support for basic computing research analyzed

June 9, 2005

Since its inception in 1958, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has earned a reputation for its lead role in cutting-edge, "blue-sky" research, particularly in computers and electronics. But now, as reported in the June 2005 issue of IEEE-USA TODAY'S ENGINEER Online, the Pentagon agency is cutting back on support for basic, open-ended computing research at U.S. universities.

According to House Science Committee testimony quoted in the TODAY'S ENGINEER article, Wm. A. Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), contends that DARPA already has lost momentum as a one-time critical engine of American high-tech research and development. "There was only one old-style DARPA, and it is gone," said Wulf, adding: "At a time of growing global competition, DARPA's disinvestment in university-based, long-term research is, in my view, a risky game for the country."

According to data provided by the staff of the House Science Committee, the amount of DARPA computer science funding awarded to universities dropped by 42.5 percent from $214 million in Fiscal Year 2001 to $123 million in Fiscal Year 2004. Over the same period, the National Science Foundation's burden of supporting research in this area increased substantially.

IEEE-USA Vice President for Technology Policy Russell Lefevre contends that the sharp drop-off in DARPA funding represents "a dramatic departure from the historic government support for basic research at U.S. universities and colleges, especially in information technology." IEEE-USA's Lefevre states that cybersecurity and high-performance computing "will suffer immensely without sustained federal investment."

The NAE's Wulf remarks came in Science Committee testimony at a 12 May hearing. The TODAY'S ENGINEER article contains complete coverage of the controversy over DARPA's funding agenda, including additional testimony before the House panel as well as separate interviews.

DARPA Director Tony Tether sought to reassure the House panel that there has been no decision to divert resources. According to Tether, "DARPA's commitment to seek new ideas, to include ideas that support research by bringing together new communities of research scientists, is the same as it has been, dating back to the agency's inception in 1958." Tether added that DARPA is not moving away from long-range "blue-sky" research.

The DARPA director emphasized the need for funding more multidisciplinary research efforts, even though that could mean cutbacks in support for particular disciplines such as computer science: "Rigidly funding specific, established disciplines would severely limit the flexibility DARPA needs to be successful," Tether said. He concluded: "DARPA needs the ability to promote multidisciplinary work to solve important national security problems."

For the complete TODAY'S ENGINEER story, go to

Source: IEEE-USA

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