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The Federal Networking and Information Technology Research and Development Program: Funding Issues and Activities

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In the early 1990s, Congress recognized that several federal agencies had ongoing high-performance computing programs, but no central coordinating body existed to ensure long-term coordination and planning. To provide such a framework, Congress passed the High-Performance Computing and Communications Program Act of 1991 (P.L. 102- 194) to enhance the effectiveness of the various programs. In conjunction with the passage of the act, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released Grand Challenges: High-Performance Computing and Communications. That document outlined a research and development (R&D) strategy for high-performance computing and a framework for a multiagency program, the High-Performance Computing and Communications (HPCC) Program.

The HPCC Program has evolved over time and is now called the Networking and Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) Program, to better reflect its expanded mission. The NITRD Program is composed of 12 agencies; its members work in collaboration to increase the overall effectiveness and productivity of federal information technology (IT) R&D. A National Coordinating Office coordinates the activities of the NITRD Program and reports to OSTP and the National Science and Technology Council.

Proponents assert that federal support of IT R&D has produced positive outcomes for the country and played a crucial role in supporting long-term research into fundamental aspects of computing. Such fundamentals provide broad practical benefits, but generally take years to realize. Additionally, the unanticipated results of research are often as important as the anticipated results.

Another aspect of government-funded IT research is that it often leads to open standards, something that many perceive as beneficial, encouraging deployment and further investment. Industry, on the other hand, is more inclined to invest in proprietary products and will diverge from a common standard when there is a potential competitive or financial advantage to do so.

Finally, proponents of government support believe that the outcomes achieved through the various funding programs create a synergistic environment in which both fundamental and application-driven research are conducted, benefitting government, industry, academia, and the public. Supporters also believe that such outcomes justify government’s role in funding IT R&D, as well as the growing budget for the NITRD Program.

Critics assert that the government, through its funding mechanisms, may be picking “winners and losers” in technological development, a role more properly residing with the private sector. For example, the size of the NITRD Program may encourage industry to follow the government’s lead on research directions rather than selecting those directions itself.

The FY2007 budget calls for $3.074 billion for the NITRD Program, an increase of $0.21 billion over the FY2006 budget estimate of $2.855 billion.

During the 109th Congress, the House of Representatives has introduced one NITRD specific bill, H.R. 28, and has held two hearings.