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NSF & Congress

Hearing Summary: House Science Committee Hearing on Information Technology for the 21st Century

March 16 , 1999

In a short, one hour session, the House Basic Research Subcommittee held a hearing on the administration's Information Technology for the 21st Century Initiative (IT 2). Witnesses included Dr. Neal Lane, OSTP Director and Science Advisor to the President, Ken Kennedy, Co-Chair of the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC), and Eric Bloch, former NSF Director and Senior Fellow, Council on Competitiveness.

In his opening comments, Chairman Nick Smith (R-MI) noted that he was a member of the House Budget Committee and that the Budget Committee would be reporting out budget resolutions that reserved any future surplus for Social Security and paying down the national debt. As a consequence, Smith said, total discretionary spending would be constrained and priorities must be set for individual programs. Given this budget outlook, Smith said, the subcommittee is looking for guidance on future spending priorities as well as future plans for the IT program.

All witnesses strongly endorsed the need for federal IT investment. Dr. Steve Wolff of Cisco Systems stated that the initiative would be making investments that industry cannot afford to make. Dr. Hal Varian of the University of California at Berkeley made a strong case for the investment in Social, Economic and Workforce impacts of IT. In information technology today, "the engineering question is not so much how to build but what to build. But 'what to build' is ultimately a social and economic question", Varian said. Towards the end of the hearing, Erich Bloch strongly endorsed the social, economic and workforce thrust of the IT initiative, saying that in his estimation, the PITAC report probably underestimates the need for investment in this area and that the total investment in social, economic and workforce impacts should be increased significantly.

Chairman Smith asked how investing in high-end, sophisticated systems would benefit the average American. Smith also voiced concern with how this new IT initiative would be coordinated with existing federal investments in IT, such as the HPCC and NGI programs. Dr. Lane stressed that the IT 2 initiative builds on earlier federal efforts such as HPCC and NGI but with a focus in areas outlined in the PITAC report. Lane emphasized that it was the administration's expectation that there would be one, unified and coordinated multi-agency federal IT program that included activities formerly under HPCC and NGI. Dr. Kennedy noted that the PITAC is authorized by the Congress to report on the coordination and management of federal IT programs and would be examining the details of the administration's IT initiative over the next few months.

Regarding the impact of high-end computing and communications on ordinary citizens, Dr. Frederick Hausheer of Johns Hopkins Oncology Center commented about how IT is revolutionizing biomedicine and the design of new pharmaceuticals. Dr. Wolff noted that IT and the Internet in the future would ubiquitous, with billions of connections including ordinary items in every nearly every household.