New NSF initiative to fund Information Technology Research aimed at bridging the "Digital Divide"

Arlington 13 September 2000The US National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded its first grants under the new $90 million Information Technology Research (ITR) initiative. The awards, which will spur fundamental research and innovative applications of Information Technology, are a step toward building on United States leadership in this area of growing importance to the economy.


Selected from over 1400 proposals, the newly funded activities will promote IT-driven science and engineering. Included are sixty-two large projects that will average $1 million per year for three to five years, involving 41 institutions in 22 states. Another 148 smaller projects will each total $500.000 or less for up to three years, involving 81 institutions in 32 states.

"This initiative will help strengthen America's leadership in a sector that has accounted for one-third of United States economic growth in recent years", commented President Bill Clinton. "High technology is generating jobs which pay 85 percent more than the average private sector wage. I am pleased that the National Science Foundation is expanding its investment in long-term information technology research. I urge the Congress to provide full funding for NSF so that they can continue to make these kinds of investments in America's future."

"These projects represent major innovations in information technology, rather than routine applications of existing technology", stated NSF director Rita Colwell. "Our strategy to support long-term, high-risk research highly responds to a challenge from the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC), which called for increased federal investment to maintain the United States lead in this important sector of the global economy."

The Information Technology Research initiative emphasises the subject areas of software; scalable information infrastructure; information management; revolutionary computing; human-computer interfaces; education and work force; advanced computational science; and social or economic implications of IT. The programme's main goals are to augment the nation's IT knowledge base and strengthen the IT work force.

"The response has been overwhelming", stated Ruzena Bajcsy, who heads the NSF Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE). "Because fund requests by proposers exceeded $3.2 billion, there were many more worthwhile projects proposed than we are able to support. The volume and quality of proposals are strong evidence justifying our desire to triple the amount for the NSF ITR budget over the next five years."

The awarded projects include a University of Pittsburgh human-computer interface effort that will use advanced vision technology to develop personal robotic assistants that could help the elderly live more independently. At the University of Colorado, computer scientists and a plant geneticist will design interfaces to speed the analysis of viruses, bacteria and other genomes.

A major ITR emphasis is "middleware", software which enhances the interaction of operating systems and their applications. For example, the University of Illinois will design middleware to optimise the efficiency and fault tolerance of network-based computer programmes for air-traffic control, smart highways, satellites, remote surgery and electronic commerce.

ITR's Scalable Information Infrastructure area emphasises innovation in network-based access to distributed data. One example is a collaboration in which the University of California-Berkeley, Mills College of Oakland, and private industry are partnering to construct a large scale prototype of error-sensing software which would automatically repair data.

The California Institute of Technology will establish an Institute for Quantum Information to experiment with algorithms which process data via quantum physical processes, a revolutionary method that could eventually make even the fastest silicon chips obsolete.

Among the largest awards is a five-year, $7.2 million grant awarded to Duke University for research into "bioinformatics", which applies IT to solve such riddles as how protein structure determines the function of an enzyme. In a partnership including the University of Chicago, the University of Florida will also receive a large award of $11.8 million over five years to let computer scientists and physicists collaborate in developing tools to analyse massive amounts of data from particle colliders as well as astronomical observatories.

Bridging the "Digital Divide" is a key goal of the ITR emphasis on societal implications. Projects include studies by Michigan State University and the City University of New York to identify factors which influence the effectiveness of IT in the classrooms and homes of disadvantaged children. The University of California Irvine will study the adoption of e-commerce worldwide, comparing data from technologically advanced countries with newly industrialised and developing nations.

Northeastern University and Boston University will collaborate in a work force and education project to form a virtual community of African American scholars in IT. Students, professionals and educators will interact on-line via this "Human Capital Development" project, seeking to increase the representation of African Americans in IT.

NSF has also just kicked off its second ITR competition. The foundation's ITR budget request for fiscal 2001 is $190 million of additional funding, although the actual appropriation is yet to be determined by Congress. For a complete list of ITR awards and project abstracts, you can visit the Web pages of the National Science Foundation. More information on the "Digital Divide" and high-risk research in the United States is available in the PITAC report.

Leslie Versweyveld

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