Beki Grinter

Snowbird: CRA in Washington D.C.

In computer science on July 22, 2010 at 2:35 pm

How do you make the case that the Federal Government should allocate discretionary funds for Computer Science research? This is a question that I’ve wondered about, but Peter Harsha’s talk at Snowbird was the first time I felt I understood what an answer to it would be. His talk, in short, was amazing. I enjoyed it, not just because he’s an exceptionally engaging speaker, but also because I felt that it was a useful combination of explanatory and fascinating.

Peter Harsha represents the Computer Research Association in Washington D.C. (he has a great blog also). I can’t possibly capture all of his talk, but I will put some thoughts down here. I want to also direct the reader to the article “Making the Case for Computing” which also discusses how Peter and Cameron Wilson, from the ACM, make their case.

First, I learnt about the type of work that people like Peter do for Computing, in other words what the CRA’s policy foci comprise. First, they work on raising funds for, and setting priorities for Computing research. Second, they focus on access to computing talent, which includes focusing on STEM and also understanding how immigration policies affect Computing occupations (speaking as a visa holder, thank you). Third, they also look at impediments to research, one example might be any changes in export control rules.

Perhaps it is because I am a foreigner that I did not know and consequently learnt that the Federal budget comes in two forms, mandatory and discretionary components. Research funding for agencies like the NSF, DARPA, Homeland Security all come out of the discretionary piece. There are a number of appropriations bills (i.e. the documents that specify the allocation of funds among the various pieces). I think that number is 12. Homeland Security, which includes HS research, has its own appropriation. The National Science Foundation’s budget is located within the Commerce, Justice and Science appropriation. DoD’s budget lives in the Defense appropriation, while the NiH’s budget is to be found in the Labor/HHS/Education appropriation. If I understand the process correctly, the President makes a budget that he sends to Congress who then review/change it, until an agreement is reached. So, what I learnt about changing the budgets was that say, for example, someone wants to up the NSF’s budget (yay), then it must come from somewhere else within that appropriation. It’s not possible to, for example, take from the NSFs budget to up the NiH’s budget because these agencies are in different appropriations.

Next, Peter talked about how they make the case for Computing, what’s the story?

Simply put the story is that Computing changes everything. The history of the field is compelling, not just because of the sheer number of scientific advances, but because of their role in advancing other sciences, business, society and so forth. Computing matters because its innovations reach beyond the discipline itself and into every part of human existence. That’s not what he said, that’s my paraphrasing.

Looking forward he suggested Global Development as one area of advancement that Computing could play a role in. That really cheered me up, I agree completely!

He also made the observation of how Federally funded research is at the center of the IT R&D ecosystem. I was reminded of another presenter at Snowbird who said that the NSF funds about 86% of all research in Computing in the United States. That’s much higher than other sciences, who have more distributed models of funding (ones spread across more agencies, and possibly other sources). Taken together it seems that the IT R&D ecosystem relies on the NSF in particular.

He also explained the processes by which they make the case for Computing. One way is to provide Congressional Testimony. But they also host events, and partner with other people who are also vested in making the case for Computing to host events (which also includes being part of larger science advocacy committees). They also use the press to help make the case. He said that CRA has a good brand, which helps. Finally he invited the audience to get involved, and explained how important it was for the Computing community to be involved in making the case.

I can’t possibly cover all the details, but he also provided the audience with detailed insight into how the appropriations and bill-setting processes work. It was mind-boggling. I think the key take away I got from this is that the government is where Politics meets politics. I don’t mean that pejoratively, rather I accept that all human organizations are comprised of people with goals that drive their actions and that in this case those goals are Political (on behalf of the citizenry that they represent) and their pursuit creates politics as inevitably there are collisions of belief and objectives. Winners and losers you might say. It was immensely helpful to understand the processes through which these agendas are executed over appropriations. I now know about the processes of motion to recommit with instructions, and line item voting.

He ended by highlighting how key members of various science and technology committees are retiring or likely to be replaced. That was sad, but perhaps not as sad as the observation that the Federal budget is tight, and looks like it will get tighter over time. He asked us to be involved, to help diversify the resources that the community draws on, and also to participate on more national advisory boards and so forth. I wish he had thoughts on how to be visible enough in order to be invited, but perhaps that’s just a silly question on my part.

He also asked us to sign up for action alerts, occasions where petitioning our representatives and senators to make the case for Computing. The CRA has an alert system here. Another way to be involved is to attend Congressional Visits, where community members go to DC and meet their Congress members at a hosted event (I think that’s what I understood it to be).

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