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Fact Sheet

Information Technology Research

October 2, 2003


A History of Grand Challenges. In 1992 and 1993, the National Science Foundation (NSF), as part of the U.S. High-Performance Computing and Communications (HPCC) program, funded projects by groups pursuing so-called "Grand Challenges." These Grand Challenge projects joined disciplinary researchers, computer scientists and emerging information technologies to tackle "fundamental problems in science and engineering, with broad economic and scientific impact, whose solution could be advanced by applying high-performance computing techniques and resources." The term "grand challenge," first used by the HPCC program, has been widely adopted in many fields to signify an overarching goal that requires a large-scale, concerted effort.

The HPCC program evolved into today's Networking and Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) interagency effort, which is coordinated by the National Coordinating Office (NCO). NCO supports the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee and manages the High-End Computing Revitalization Task Force. NSF serves as the host agency for the National Coordinating Office.


President's Information Technology Advisory Committee. Established in 1997, the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC) was charged with advising the president on high-performance computing and communications, information technology, and the Next-Generation Internet. PITAC has been renewed through June 2005. PITAC's influential 1999 report noted that information technology has created unprecedented possibilities for advancing knowledge across the spectrum of human endeavors, including scientific research, education, engineering design and manufacturing, environmental systems, health care, business, entertainment and government operations. However, the report also asserted that the United States was "gravely underinvesting" in information technology research.


Information Technology Research (ITR). In response to the PITAC report, NSF and other federal agencies worked with the National Science and Technology Council to develop research plans, which were formalized at NSF in the Information Technology Research (ITR) priority area.

The ITR priority area encourages and stimulates innovative, high-risk and high-return multidisciplinary research that extends the frontiers of information technology, improves understanding of its impacts on society, helps prepare Americans for the Information Age, and reduces the vulnerabilities of society to catastrophic events, whether natural or man-made. In addition to augmenting the nation's information technology knowledge base and strengthening the information technology workforce, the ITR priority area fosters visionary work that could lead to major advances, new and unanticipated technologies, revolutionary applications or new ways to perform important activities.

Notably, ITR awards have launched a number of community-driven applications of grid computing, including the Grid Physics Network (GriPhyN), the National Virtual Observatory (NVO) and the Geosciences Network (GEON). Other ITR-supported research covers topics as diverse as mobile sensor webs for polar research, robotic assistants for the elderly, an International Children's Digital Library, quantum and molecular computing and virtual scientific instruments.

In fiscal 2000, the initiative's first year, the NSF ITR priority area had a budget of $126 million and focused on projects stressing fundamental research and education. In fiscal 2001, with a budget of $216 million, applications in science were added. With a fiscal 2002 budget of $277 million, the program made awards to support research to create and use cutting-edge cyberinfrastructure, focusing on emerging opportunities at the interfaces between information technologies and other disciplines. The fiscal 2003 budget was $299 million, and the ITR program continued to emphasize interdisciplinary research opportunities and the expansion of information technology use throughout science and engineering. Reflecting the current world situation, more than 800 proposals received in response to the fiscal 2003 ITR solicitation were related to homeland security applications.

In the Administration's 2004 request for NSF, ITR would receive $313 million. Fiscal 2004 is the final year of ITR as an NSF priority area and will be a transition year in which changes are made to focus the research and move toward the future. Although various options are being examined, the success of the ITR initiative has ensured that ITR in some form will remain an important part of activities for the Computer and Information Sciences and Engineering (CISE) directorate.

NSF ITR Program:

Tomorrow's Grand Challenges. The needs for and demands placed upon information technology continue to present challenges to the research community. The Computing Research Association recently released a report on the "Grand Research Challenges" in information systems. The result of a three-day workshop supported by NSF, the report encapsulates the discussions of 65 leading computer science and engineering researchers. The conference attendees identified five "deliberately monumental" research challenges. A post-disaster safety net, "cognitive partners" for humans, personalized lifelong learning environments, unfailingly reliable systems—all while making information technology less complex—each will require "at least a decade of concentrated research in order to make substantive progress."

CRA Grand Research Challenges Report:


Media Contacts
David Hart, NSF, (703) 292-8070, email:

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2017, its budget is $7.5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 48,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.

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