As I See It, March 2008

By Nelson Morgan, Director

We need to know the candidates' qualifications for understanding and judging science, and for speaking intelligently about science and technology to the leaders of other nations in planning our collective global future.

- Donald Kennedy, editor-in-chief of Science

As I write this we are in the heat of the Primary season for the 2008 Presidential election in the U.S. I find myself to be enthusiastic for one of the candidates for the first time in many years. No, I'm not going to say who that might be; we are, after all, a public not-for-profit corporation, and I should not advocate any particular candidate in this public forum. But what's relevant for this column and this institute is one of the requirements for a new president - having enough understanding of science and technology to put forward effective policies.

To some extent, technology moves forward on its own - innovation generates financial success, at least for some, and researchers will continue to invent regardless of (or despite) government policies. But this is a limited view of what really happens. Government policies have huge effects on scientific and technological progress. Diminished resources for schools limit the "seed corn" of innovation, and shortsighted approaches to research and development limit the potential for future advances. For the most part, industry does not (and perhaps can not, at least currently) focus on long-term research, and while there are admirable efforts to support exceptional student researchers with internships and fellowships, there are relatively few such opportunities. And of course, the core capabilities of students pursuing advanced studies are limited by the problems in K-12 education in the U.S.

Increasingly, government support for technological research has had the same kind of short-term perspective that corporations have adopted to satisfy their Boards and stockholders. Agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health are explicitly designed to support longer-term studies, but only a tiny fraction of proposals to these organizations are funded. And while all of us who serve as reviewers support the notion of high risk, transformative research, the moderating effect of peer review panels tends to favor what is safe, since anything controversial is likely to be killed by at least one reviewer, given the small fraction of proposals that can be funded.

Providing more funding for research and training is not sufficient to handle these problems. Government also needs to provide effective leadership, for instance by appointing agency leadership that celebrates rationality and rewards honest scholarship, rather than censoring science for political goals. Hopefully this will be a characteristic of the next Administration, whoever takes office next January 20. But sufficient funding is definitely a necessary condition, and we're not there now. Increasing the budgets for science and technology has seemingly been a consensus view in government for some time now, but the reality has not matched the rhetoric. There are many reasons for this, and this column is not the right place to enumerate them (nor am I expert in such analysis); but moving past the current blockages to properly fund research and education is critical to the U.S. remaining a great nation.

Does this rant have much to do with ICSI? As our name indicates, we are an international institute, and receive funding from many sources outside the U.S. government. Many of the Institute researchers come from elsewhere in the world, and most will ultimately return to their home countries. And yet, we are deeply affected by government research policies. U.S. government support provides most of our funding, and the increasing emphasis on short-term deliverables for many agencies makes it much more difficult to maintain a consistent research focus for the term of a student's Ph.D. Since we are committed to continuing our long-term research in areas such as Internet security, bioinformatics, and human language technology, senior researchers must spend an increasing amount of time hunting for funding that can be pieced together into a coherent whole. We don't shy away from competition, and our "hit rate" is far greater than the national average; but the hunt for support has become a significant drag on our human resources.

Despite these concerns, ICSI thrives, in no small part due to our international program. Due to our training mission, and our success in attracting foreign visitors, we are able to continue research in our core areas despite the inevitable fluctuations in U.S. government funding. Industrial support, while not reaching the proportions that we saw during the dot-com boom, has also continued to supplement both U.S. and international funding. But we will observe the U.S. Presidential campaign with great interest, as the choices of the next administration will have enormous effects on research and education institutions throughout the country, including ICSI.

In this issue of the Gazette, we will feature an overview of ICSI work on Internet Security. Our News section will also report a great honor received by our leader in this work, Prof. Vern Paxson.