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IT Ecosystem in Peril

The Debate in Washington, D.C. over strengthening the nation's infrastructure shouldn't focus only on roads and bridges. To keep the U.S. economy healthy for years to come, policymakers must also bolster another vital infrastructure: the IT industry's research and development ecosystem.

That's one of the conclusions of Assessing the Impacts of Changes in the Information Technology R&D Ecosystem: Retaining Leadership in an Increasingly Global Environment, a 166-page report created by a National Research Council panel and released by the National Academy of Sciences in January.

The study's 12-member panel, consisting of IT leaders in academia, venture capital, and industry, examined the threats to U.S. prominence as a world IT leader. "The report says the U.S. risks ceding IT leadership to other nations within a generation, and I think that's absolutely true," says Ed Lazowska, a committee member and Bill & Melinda Gates chair in computer science and engineering at the University of Washington. "People should be seriously concerned about the entire ecosystem."

The response, according to the study, should be to build U.S. strengths in "conceptualizing idea-intensive new concepts, products, and services." For that it needs the "best-funded, most-creative" research institutions, world-leading technical and entrepreneurial talent, and advanced technology infrastructures, in particular for next-generation wireless broadband communications.

But some specific recommendations may be controversial during an economic downturn, including calls for additional government spending and increases in the number of H-1B visas for foreign nationals.

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Reassess R&D Funding

Although the report doesn't recommend funding goals, Lazowska says the Obama administration should reassess R&D funding priorities. "We should be investing in research that's going to create the infrastructure we need five, 10, and 15 years from now," Lazowska says.

To do this, funding authorities should consider IT's contribution to the economy, says Randy H. Katz, co-chair of the study and professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley. "Do a fair assessment of the impact of IT on the economy. By that [measure] a lot of the growth in the U.S. domestic product can be attributed to productivity growth related to the effective use of information technology," he says.

Recommendations for helping the nation remain a magnet for technical talent include strengthening computing education, and more controversially, expanding the number of H-1B visas issued to permit foreign nationals to study and work in the U.S.

Some U.S. citizens believe H-1B visas enable foreign nationals to take jobs from Americans and depress IT salaries. But the study argues for flexibility and recommends that the permits favor those with advanced degrees who subsequently work in the U.S. to create new products and companies, Katz explains.

The alternative is to allow international students to receive U.S. tax dollars for research and education "and then send those students back to their home countries to compete against us," warns Dan Reed, scalable and multicore computing strategist with Microsoft Research and a member of the study's review committee.

Finally, to fuel the economy's ability to encourage new companies, policymakers should reduce the "friction" caused by regulations such as the Bayh-Dole Act, which governs university intellectual property issues. "What's a modest burden for a major multinational can be a huge legal or regulatory burden for four guys in a garage," Reed says.

Katz calls entrepreneurs and venture capitalists "a very important and under-examined dimension" for IT R&D. "The takeaway I'd want for Congress is that one size does not necessarily ft all," Katz says. "Having some understanding [of this] is important in the way that they draft that legislation."

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Alan Joch is a business and technology writer based in Francestown, NH.

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UT1Table. Comparison of U.S., Japanese, and European union estimated public funding of civilian information technology and communications research and development (in billions of dollars)

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©2009 ACM  0001-0782/09/0400  $5.00

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