IT research losing its dominance? No worries

Tech Culture

The head of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency made an interesting point yesterday about the state of his agency's research at univerities: Yes, computer science may be losing its commanding lead when it comes to funded projects, but that's not necessarily bad.

DARPA has been under fire recently, accused of shifting its resources away from open-ended computer science research at universities. In three years, DARPA halved academic IT research to $123 million in fiscal year 2004, according to David Patterson, president of the Association for Computing Machinery.

The criticism comes amid concern that the United States is jeopardizing its long-term tech future, in part by shrinking away from bold research efforts. DARPA, after all, helped develop the Internet and global-positioning system technologies that are widely used today.

But DARPA Director Tony Tether offered a different version of events in his testimony to the House Committee on Science. He said the agency has not lost its long-term focus. And while DARPA's computer science funding at universities may have slid in recent years, the agency's overall funding of university research has not, he argued.

"The key question becomes: 'What other discipline has grown significantly over the past five years at the expense of computer science?'" Tether asked in his prepared remarks.

The answer, according to Tether, is none. Instead, there has been a rise in multidisciplinary efforts. That is, research that draws from a variety of fields, such as the way investigations into artificial intelligence may include insights from biology, computer science and psychology.

No tears should be shed for the relative decline of computer science, Tether suggests. In his written testimony, he said he agreed with the statement. "Multidisciplinary research is the foundation for creating the innovations of the future."

In fact, computer science itself is the fruit of an earlier multidisciplinary push, according to Tether. "In the 1960s, there was no 'computer science' discipline per se. DARPA funded electrical engineering and mathematics ideas, along with ideas from other areas, combined them, and began to focus on the problems and opportunities of human-machine interface and networks," Tether said. "This effort led to the personal computer and the Internet. Today, the multidisciplinary outcome is what we call 'computer science.'"

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