UC Berkeley’s David Patterson argues at the Harvard Business Review today that Tony Tether and Bush 43 derailed the successful DARPA funding approach that brought us the Internet (among other things), and that fixing it is crucial for our Nation’s competitiveness in IT
Specifically, DARPA under Bush drastically reduced the role of universities in IT research projects it funded and shifted both power and money to companies. If the old DARPA model is not restored, the U.S. lead in IT — especially in software — could be lost.
…Tether instituted 12- to 18-month milestones for DARPA-funded programs. If you didn’t make them, he would cancel not just one person’s contract but the whole program. The idea that you can decide the success of research in 12 to 18 months is absurd.
Patterson’s case-in-point is the notable lack of progress we have made in software and technology to effectively take advantage of the now-ubiquitous parallel hardware
The result: Not much progress has been made in solving some of the biggest IT problems confronting us. One worth singling out in particular is developing technology so software can run on multi-core, or parallel, processors. Figuring out how you can make important programs go faster and how to add new features to it when you’re using 10 processors instead of one is a very hard problem to solve — the kind that if somebody in another country figures out how to solve it, the software center of the universe could move from the United States to someplace else.
Before Tether came in, a few of us successfully pitched a project to tackle that challenge. But during the Tether years, the vast majority of DARPA’s money for the project went to IBM, Sun, and Cray Research. I don’t know how many tens or hundreds of millions of dollars DARPA gave to these companies, but whatever research they did has had very little impact on solving one of the biggest problems facing computer science.
I think that Patterson is right; but the language of crisis he uses “U.S. lead in IT — especially in software — could be lost” is becoming worn. I’ve recently had occasion to read most of the major blue ribbon HPC and IT reports that have been written in the US since the early 1980s, and almost every single one of them uses this language. Yes, IT is central to our Nation’s competitiveness, but have we really been on the hair edge of calamity for 30 years? The fact that all of these reports use the same language, and that we are still dragging it out today, starts to look like laziness on the part of our community. Rather than making a rich, reasoned argument, we just declare a crisis and cash a check.
On the other hand, perhaps this language is the only way to get the attention of our leaders. That in itself is a problem.