The R&D triad
Thomas R. Temin
I hear the word partnership a lot lately.
When referring to the relationship between government and the information technology industry, it implies that agencies are more than customers and companies more than mere vendors. Both parties have a vested interest in an open and mutually beneficial relationship.
But there is a third less visible, yet equally important player. This third party offers a lot of promise for solving government's seemingly intractable IT problems. I'm referring to academic researchers, the teams of scientists and scholars doing work in labs and college computer science departments. Many of these researchers are working on long-range software and technology developments that won't result in commercial products for many years.
Recently, the National Science Foundation organized a workshop that brought together researchers working on government-related IT projects under NSF grants. Many researchers at the conference noted that the size and scope of the government's IT problems are bigger than those of industry.
What business, asked one academic, is required to maintain public access to thousands of databases and preserve records indefinitely?
I'd classify most of the work being done as applied research. It's less commercially oriented than what passes for research at, say, Microsoft Corp. or Sun Microsystems Inc., but it is not entirely theoretical.
Several presentations had a specific agency project or a particular application in mind. For example, one effort focuses on creating metadata standards to improve searches across the National Biological Information Infrastructure.
The federal IT partnership is really a three-way affair with the government as the senior partner because it foots the bill. And as the senior partner, the government must know what's going on with the research projects it funds. Agency staffs that oversee the initiatives must have sufficient business and technical acumen.
Yet in this era of relentless downsizing and outsourcing, many of the government's most able people are leaving in alarming numbers. That exodus doesn't bode well for the government's long-term ability to fund and manage systems R&D.Thomas R. Temin