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Grand Challenges for Information Technology

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Credit: Curt Breneman, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
The needs for and demands placed upon information technology continue to present challenges to the research community. The Computing Research Association’s report on the "Grand Research Challenges" in information systems, the result of a three-day workshop supported by NSF, encapsulates the discussions of 65 leading computer science and engineering researchers.

The report identifies five "deliberately monumental" research challenges, each requiring "at least a decade of concentrated research in order to make substantive progress":

  • A post-disaster safety net.
  • "Cognitive partners" for humans.
  • Personalized lifelong learning environments.
  • Unfailingly reliable systems.
  • Making information technology less complex.

These five grand challenges are, however, only the latest targets in applying information technologies to the most complex scientific and societal issues.

The First Grand Challenges. In 1992 and 1993, 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 tackled "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 Information Technology Research and Development (ITRD) 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 and renewed through 2005, 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'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: 2000-2004. 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 five-year Information Technology Research (ITR) priority area. ITR also built upon goals and ideas from NSF’s 1998-1999 Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence (KDI) initiative.

The ITR priority area was designed to encourage and stimulate innovative, high-risk and high-return research that extended the frontiers of information technology, improved understanding of its impacts on society, helped prepare Americans for the Information Age and reduced the vulnerabilities of society to catastrophic events, whether natural or man-made. The ITR priority area has supported more than a thousand projects that are leading to major advances, new and unanticipated technologies, revolutionary applications and new ways to perform important activities.

Notably, ITR awards have launched a number of community-driven applications of cyberinfrastructure, 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 2000, the initiative's first year, the NSF ITR priority area focused on projects stressing fundamental research and education. In 2001, applications in science were added. In 2002, 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. By 2003, the ITR budget had grown to nearly $300 million. Reflecting the current world situation, more than 800 proposals received in 2003 were related to homeland security applications.

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. 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.

Cyberinfrastructure A Special Report