Setting the 21st Century Research Agenda

One of my goals at OSTP is to reduce the time between when the research community identifies potentially high-impact ideas and when these ideas are embraced and implemented by Federal science agencies. During the 1990s, for example, I worked with the research community and program managers across the Federal government to develop the National Nanotechnology Initiative. That initiative was launched in FY 2001 with a $500 million budget, and as of this year has invested more than $12 billion into this important new technology, helping position the United States as the world leader in both nanotechnology R&D and commercialization.

There is a variety of mechanisms through which the research community can participate in agenda-setting. One model I have found to be very valuable is exemplified by the Computing Community Consortium (CCC). Launched in 2007 with funding from the National Science Foundation and consisting of researchers from more than 200 universities and research institutes across the country, the CCC has played an important role in identifying and promoting exciting “visions” for the future of Information Technology (IT) research—ideas that have the potential to attract the best and brightest to the field, drive economic growth, and address national challenges in areas such as health, energy, and education.

In late 2008, for example, the CCC mobilized some of the top researchers in the IT field to write (in less than two weeks!) short papers for the Obama transition team on topics such as e-Science, quantum computing, and the future of DARPA. The CCC has also organized workshops to develop detailed research roadmaps in areas such as robotics, data-intensive computing, and health information technology. These papers and workshop reports have had a clear influence on Administration budget and recruiting decisions and have already sparked collaborations between government, industry, and academia. The agility and flexibility of the CCC is particularly important for a field like IT, which changes rapidly and has such a profound impact on science and engineering, the economy, and our society.

I believe there is a strong case for replicating the CCC model in other areas of research. These efforts would not necessarily need to be organized around traditional disciplines. For example, one could imagine analogues to the CCC in areas of research such as clean energy, nanoscale science and engineering, and the “interfaces” of biology, the physical sciences, and engineering. They would undoubtedly strengthen the ability of the United States to identify and support transformative research.

Tom Kalil is Deputy Director for Policy in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

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