Corporate officials urge feds to fund more IT research

Federal support for IT has led to such developments as the Internet and supercomputing. But a congressional committee investigating government-sponsored IT research was told Tuesday that funding is stagnating at a time when many companies are cutting back on their own long-term development efforts because of increasing competitive pressures.

"We must act now to reinvigorate long-term IT research," said Eric Benhamou, chairman of 3Com, during a hearing held by the House Science Committee's Subcommittee on Research. "If we do not take these steps, the flow of ideas that have fueled the information revolution over the past decades may slow to a trickle."

Benhamou is a member of the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee, which two years ago recommended a multibillion-dollar increase in the federal government's spending on IT research and development. But that suggestion went nowhere in Congress.

The government is scheduled to spend US$1.76 billion on technology research initiatives during its current fiscal year, and only a small increase is being proposed for next year. The Bush administration has asked that the funding be increased by just more than 1 percent to a total of $1.785 million, according to figures provided by the House Science Committee.

The kind of research funded by the government is typically long-term in nature, spanning multiple years and with no guarantee that it will ever pay off. In contrast, said Benhamou and other officials who testified at Tuesday's hearing, corporate research spending has to be focused largely on short-term product development efforts.

"Companies cannot fund research that has no guarantee of practical application, or they risk losing their competitive edge," said Alfred Berkeley, vice chairman and former president of The Nasdaq Stock Market. Moreover, the ability of companies to invest in IT-related research is being further constrained by globalization and other trends, Berkeley said.

For example, he said, global competition in many cases is pushing pricing levels too low to produce enough profits to support basic research funding. Deregulation has also removed the protections that gave companies some freedom to invest in long-term research, Berkeley said. He added that research budgets are being squeezed even more by the growth of mutual funds and other large investment pools that "go after the highest rates of returns they can get."

A bigger increase in government research funding isn't likely to provide immediate help to vendors that are being affected by the current slowdown in corporate IT purchases, Benhamou acknowledged. But if more money had been available in prior years, "perhaps we would have had more innovations to grow from," he said. "In general, [the IT] industry expects to innovate its way out of this recession."

In the area of supercomputing, the U.S. Department of Energy is getting systems that can handle 12 teraFLOPS of performance and is working to develop machines capable of doing 30 teraFLOPS. But recent supercomputing awards by the National Science Foundation, which funds most of the basic research projects in the U.S., only target systems that can reach 8 teraFLOPS.

As a result, university research scientists in the U.S. don't have access to the most capable high-end supercomputers, said Anita Jones, a professor of engineering and applied science at the University of Virginia and vice chair of the National Science Board. Scientists in other countries, Japan in particular, can use the more powerful systems, she added.

The research subcommittee has backed additional increases in government spending on IT development, and its chairman, U.S. Rep. Nick Smith Tuesday said the issue is "vital to our nation's future prosperity." The Bush administration's position will likely come up in earnest when the House Science Committee hears testimony from John H. Marburger III, who Monday was designated as the nominee to head the White House's Office of Science and Technology.