NSF & Congress
Dr. Rita Colwell
National Science Foundation
Before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee
Subcommittee on Science, Space and Technology
March 1, 2000
Mr. Chairman, members of the subcommittee, thank you
for allowing me the opportunity to testify on the
National Science Foundation's role in fostering the
next stages of the information revolution.
I am pleased to be here today. This is a topic of utmost
importance for the future of our nation's economy
and the well-being of our fellow citizens. A healthy,
long-term federal investment in high speed networking
and information technology overall is critical if
the United States is to remain a world leader - not
only in science and engineering - but in our economy,
national security, health care, education and overall
quality of life.
My prepared remarks today will include a short history
of NSF's support for cutting edge concepts in high-speed
networking and their transfer to the private sector
along with a brief discussion of the following topics:
- NSF's participation in the multi-disciplinary
Federal Information Technology Research and Development
Initiative (IT R&D) for which NSF is the lead
- NSF's participation in the Next Generation Internet
Program - an integral component of the IT R&D
initiative - our cooperation with private industry
through the rich transfer of new ideas to the
private sector, our cooperation with the other
- NSF's efforts to promote connectivity and access
for all, including our efforts to improve connectivity
for rural and minority-serving institutions and
our strong support for cutting-edge education
activities designed to ensure that our citizens
will have the scientific, mathematical, engineering,
and technological expertise needed to excel in
tomorrow's knowledge-based economy.
NSF Support for High-Speed Networking:
A Record of Accomplishment
Mr. Chairman, this subcommittee has long been a strong,
bipartisan supporter of the federal investment in
IT R&D. In the early 1980's, this subcommittee
strongly encouraged NSF to invest in high-performance
computing resources for the nation's academic scientists
and engineers. The subcommittee also was a leader
in the enactment of the High Performance Computing
Act of 1991. This leadership continued with the passage
of the bipartisan Next Generation Internet Act of
With this backing from the subcommittee and the entire
Congress, NSF has continued to support some of the
most successful and innovative computer-communications
concepts and technologies at their earliest, most
experimental stages. NSF funded university-based supercomputer
centers in the mid-1980's to provide academic scientists
and engineers with access to state-of-the-art computing
To facilitate access to the centers, NSF began a parallel
effort in networking. It built on fundamental investments
by DARPA in a more restricted environment, and resulted
in the formation of the national NSFNET backbone network
and regional networks connecting university students
and faculty to the supercomputing centers. In a very
brief period of time, NSFNET and the regional networks
began performing important communication and information
access functions in addition to supercomputer center
access. Through this development and its subsequent
privatization, the Internet industry was born.
Mr. Chairman, the story of NSF's longstanding support
for backbone networks is now well known but it is
only one example of how fundamental IT investments
by NSF and other agencies have paid huge dividends
for the nation. Support of fundamental networking
research has received less publicity but is equally
important to the future of information science and
For example, it was David Mills, an NSF grantee at
the University of Delaware, who made it possible to
have one Internet as opposed to a Tower of Babel of
competing electronic networks. Mills developed the
first widely-used Internet routers -- the gateways
and switches that guide the bits and bytes of data
around the globe at the speed of light. That's why
many people say NSF put the "inter" in Internet. Today
CISCO Systems - the premier maker of Internet router
technology - now has a market capitalization of $454
Knowledge Transfer Not Just Technology Transfer
Innovations like the Internet router only occurred
through sustained, long-term federal investments in
information science and engineering by many agencies.
One might think that these past successes assure us
of an equally bright future. Unfortunately, in a fast
paced, technologically-rooted information age, the
worst thing we could do is rest on our laurels.
The key point is that the IT R&D conducted by private
industry - be it performed by large or small firms
- is now primarily near-term and product-focused.
There are many reasons for this trend. With increased
global competition, increasingly rapid product cycling
and high expectations from shareholders, IT industry
managers tend to focus on activities that maximize
short-term payoffs. Market pressures are often too
great and technology changes too rapid to allow for
major investments with a long-term perspective.
When the subject of technology transfer is brought
up, there is one aspect of the impact of basic research
that is often overlooked - the role of NSF's investments
in people. NSF's Engineering Directorate recently
sponsored a set of studies on today's leading technologies:
areas like cell phones, fiber optics, and computer
assisted design. It's well known that the great majority
of the seminal work in these areas was performed by
private industry--at labs like Corning, AT&T, and
Does that mean that NSF had no role? Hardly. When you
go back and look at the work, a clear pattern emerges.
Scientists and engineers who went to graduate school
on NSF fellowships and research assistantships often
brought the key insights to industry. In a number
of cases, they became the entrepreneurs who created
new firms and markets.
To quote from the study--"NSF emerges consistently
as a major--often the major, source of support for
education and training of the Ph.D. scientists and
engineers who went on to make major contributions...."
It is this transfer of people - the highly trained
scientists and engineers supported by NSF and other
agencies - that is making a tremendous impact on our
The NGI program is a tremendous success in this regard.
In a preliminary review of the NGI program, the President's
Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC)
found that numerous NGI-funded scientists, engineers
and students - first funded at universities - have
gone on in just a few short years to found start-up
companies with an estimated market capitalization
of over $27 billion.
Information Technology Research (ITR)
The impact of information technology on our society
has been much wider and much more pervasive than anyone
could have anticipated just a few years ago. Advances
in computing, communications, and the collection,
digitization and processing of information have altered
the everyday lives of all our citizens.
There is no question that as Internet growth has gone
through the roof, IT has become the essential fuel
for the nation's economic engine. Even the ever-cautious
Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan has pointed to innovations
in IT as the driving force behind our strong economic
The numbers speak for themselves. As Neal Lane has
mentioned, more than a third of our economic growth
in the past five years has resulted from Information
Technology. IT investments have spurred an enormous
upswing in worker productivity that has fueled the
current economic boom. The challenge now is to sustain
this record of success.
Last year, the PITAC concluded that federal support
for long-term research on information technology has
been "dangerously inadequate." In its words "support
in most critical areas has been flat or declining
for nearly a decade, while the importance of IT to
our economy has increased dramatically." This has
led to the government-wide initiative in Information
Technology R&D for which NSF is the lead agency.
The Information Technology Research Initiative at NSF
will emphasize research and education on a broad range
of topics. Focus areas include:
- Advancing computer system architecture; research
on software, hardware, system architectures, operating
systems, programming languages, communication
networks, as well as systems that acquire, store,
process, transmit, and display information.
- Improving information storage and retrieval; research
on how we can best use the vast amount of information
that has been digitized and stored.
- Connectivity and access for all; research that
aims to overcome the digital divide separating
the information "haves" from the "have-nots" and
research on inequality of access to and use of
computing and communications technology.
- Scalable Networks of Embedded Systems; As the
scale of integration of systems that may be achieved
continues to grow, systems must be designed with
both hardware and software aspects treated from
a unified point of view.
- Novel approaches; new models of computation and
physical processes such as molecular, DNA and
quantum computing. These efforts are deeply anchored
in the mathematical and physical sciences and
Through our part of the multiagency IT R&D program,
the Information Technology Research (ITR) initiative,
NSF will seek to strengthen Education in IT, including:
- programs that provide scholarships, fellowships
- improved undergraduate research participation;
- encouragement of graduate students to participate
in K-12 education; and develop new curriculum;
- research aimed at understanding the causes of
underrepresentation of various segments of society
in the workforce.
NSF will also increase research on Applications of
IT across fields of science and engineering. This
will also be a critical component of the ITR initiative.
This includes simulation to tackle research problems
across the frontiers of science and engineering. Important
networking applications include:
- Collaboration Technologies
- Digital Libraries
- Distributed Computing
- Remote Operations and
- Security and Privacy issues
Finally through the ITR Initiative, NSF will increase
it's support for Infrastructure including the Next
Generation Internet Program. Support for infrastructure
- computing facilities ranging from single workstations
to clusters of workstations to supercomputers of various
sizes and capabilities;
- large databases and digital libraries, the
broadband networking, data mining and database
tools for accessing them;
- appropriate bandwidth connectivity to facilitate
interactive communication and collaboration
and software to enable easy and efficient
utilization of networked resources; and
- networks of large and small physical devices.
NGI Connections at NSF: A Tremendous Success
Mr. Chairman, the NGI program has been a great
success. Enabled by fundamental advances in optical
networking under supported by DARPA and NSF, the
number of very high performance networks has increased
and the available bandwidth for research and education
has had phenomenal growth.
A diverse array of US universities in all 50 states
now have high-speed connectivity thanks to NGI
investments. In fact, many more institutions than
originally anticipated now have high-speed access
thanks to the program. Connectivity to Alaska
and Hawaii has improved dramatically as well.
NSF's original goal under the NGI program was to
connect 100 universities using the vBNS network
and the Internet2 Coalition's Abilene network.
Today NSF is excited that over 170 university
connection awards have now been made. This includes
over 40 universities in EPSCoR states - nearly
one-quarter of the total.
This increase in connectivity has resulted in interest
in high performance networking in both academia
and industry. It has had enormous impact on the
knowledge transfer I mentioned earlier. Having
so many more scientists, engineers and students
from across the nation involved in high-speed
networking activities has dramatically increased
the available talent pool for industry.
Universities form a rich, fertile proving ground
for new network ideas and concepts that can be
quickly transferred to the private sector. Without
consistent federal funding, such a well-spring
of ideas could run dry.
What's Next for NGI: The Next-Next Generation Internet
In marking our 50th anniversary, we are celebrating
vision and foresight. The recently retired hockey-great,
Wayne Gretzky, used to say, "I skate to where
the puck is going, not to where it's been."
Mr. Chairman, at NSF, we try to fund where the
fields are going, not to where they've been. We
have a strong record across all fields of science
and engineering for choosing to fund insightful
proposals and visionary investigators.
It is our job to keep all fields of science and
engineering focused on the furthest frontier.
Our task is to recognize and nurture emerging
fields, and to support the work of those with
the most insightful reach. And, we prepare future
generations of scientific talent.
In this tradition, NSF is looking at new directions
for the NGI program. One trend is clear: high-speed
fiber backbone networks are rich seed beds for
Now that connectivity has been dramatically increased,
new fundamental research problems must be tackled.
In today's networked world, dramatic increases
in backbone speed do not automatically translate
into dramatic increases in performance. Many of
these problems will not be easily solved without
new, novel approaches.
Today, achieving high performance from end user
to end user - the so called Broadband Last Mile
Problem - remains difficult. Some commentators
have remarked that the current situation is like
having a four-lane highways beginning and ending
with dirt roads.
To increase backbone speed, efficiency and stability,
we will need fundamental research into new middleware
network service capabilities. This includes research
in user authentication and verification, distributed
computing services, and distributed storage services.
Also, NSF will support research dealing with satellite
and other wireless technology to help reach into
areas where wireline and fiber are not possible
We will also need research into new optical access
technologies. In the future optical backbones
will use more and more optical routing. Research
is needed to discover how to appropriately extend
the reach of these technologies. This will correspondingly
extend the reach of networks and ensure that institutions
not now taking advantage of high performance networking
have the opportunity to do so.
Bridging the Digital Divide
This brings me to my last point. Today we find
ourselves on a precipice--looking down into that
worrisome gap known as the digital divide. We
are all here today because we believe in the power
of information technology to bring about the most
democratic revolution in literacy and numeracy
the world has ever known.
We also know that if we're not careful, this same
power could be economically divisive. We imagine
universal connectedness, with talk of "tetherless
networks" that anyone could tap into anytime,
But we could also broaden the gap between the information
rich and the information bereft. In our own nation,
sociologists have identified groups whose access
to telephones, computers, and the Internet lag
far behind the national averages.
These information gaps appear among nations as
well. Most of those who live in the Third World
have never used a telephone. Our worldwide web
is a thinly stretched one. Less than two percent
of the world is actually on the web. If we subtract
the United States and Canada, it's less than one
The report by the President's Information Technology
Advisory Committee (PITAC) spells out some of
these gaps. "For instance," says the committee,
"whites are more likely than African-Americans
to have Internet access" at home or work. "We
expect there are similar gaps with other minority
groups, such as Hispanics and Native Americans.
Recent research...suggests that the racial gap
in Internet use is increasing."
In September 1999 NSF made a four-year $6 million
award to EDUCAUSE to help minority-serving institutions
develop campus infrastructure and national connections.
The award addresses Hispanic, Native American,
and Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
The scope includes:
- Executive awareness, vision, and planning
- Remote technical support centers
- Local network planning
- Local consulting and training
- Satellite/wireless pilot projects
- New network technologies: Prototype installations
- Grid applications
To conclude Mr. Chairman, let me again thank you
for holding this hearing so that we may exchange
views on the future direction of this important
area. Let me also restate NSF's willingness to
work with you, the subcommittee and the full committee
to ensure a robust federal IT investment including
the NGI program. The PITAC report has raised important
concerns over our lack of federal investment in
fundamental IT research and we at NSF are responding
to the challenge. We look forward to extending
the federal IT partnership to help ensure U.S.
world leadership in IT.