PCAST Assesses Federal Information Technology R&D

Information technology (IT) drives the modern world. Nearly every device – be it a car, a kitchen appliance, a device on the manufacturing floor, or a child’s toy – is enhanced by IT. IT empowers scientific inquiry, space and Earth exploration, teaching and learning, health, consumer buying and selling, informed decision-making, national security, transportation, advanced manufacturing, and protection of the environment. IT-enabled advances rest on a strong base of research and development (R&D) created over many years of government and private investment. Today, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released its latest report to the President and Congress, Ensuring Leadership in Federally Funded Research and Development in Information Technology. The report is a Congressionally mandated assessment of the Federal Networking and Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) Program, which coordinates the Nation’s federally-funded research and development. This report provides an update on the progress of the NITRD Program since the last assessment in 2013 and makes new recommendations.

In the report, PCAST focuses on eight R&D areas: cybersecurity, IT and health, Big Data and data-intensive computing, IT and the physical world, privacy protection, cyber-human systems, high capability computing, and foundational computing research. All of these areas help to achieve the Nation’s priorities.  For example, Big Data, IT and the physical world, and high-capability computing are essential contributors to addressing issues within energy and the environment. 

The report provides recommendations for the Federal Government to lead in the education and training of its people for participation in the IT workforce. Steps are needed to establish a healthy and expanding educational pipeline that attracts and retains a diverse pool of young people to IT careers. Leadership is also needed in designing educational programs that enable lifelong IT learning and education.

The report offers recommendations to continue to coordinate Federal investment in IT R&D effectively. It is time to refresh the set of categories for IT R&D spending, known as Program Component Areas (PCAs). Many of these PCAs date back to 1995 and have remained unchanged. This report proposes eight new PCAs beginning in FY 2017 and recommends updating them every 5 to 6 years to ensure alignment with current priorities in IT fields.

IT has clearly evolved over the last twenty-five years. New topics emerge and others decline in importance and the NITRD organization needs to evolve in response. As a result of these findings, PCAST recommends changes to the multi-agency focus groups (“Groups”) that traditionally had been mapped to the PCAs to help realign the coordination structure. Some Groups might have long lives while other Groups should stand up and end in as short as 6 months or a year, all while remaining flexible for change.

The United States has been a proud leader in Information Technology for over seven decades and must continue its rich history of achievements and leadership in IT. The advances in IT thus far have had a tremendous benefit to this country, its citizens, and to the world. The implementation of recommendations presented in this report will play a critical role in ensuring economic competitiveness, securing national security, enhancing quality of life, and improving the overall vitality of The Nation.

The full PCAST report is available here.

Susan Graham is a co-chair of the PCAST NITRD Working Group.

Eric Schmidt is a member of PCAST.

PCAST is an advisory group of the Nation’s leading scientists and engineers, appointed by the President to augment the science and tech­nology advice available to him from inside the White House and from cabinet departments and other Federal agencies. For more information about PCAST, please visit the PCAST website.

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