NSF makes first grants in ambitious computer research program

Expeditions in Computing to fund long-term basic research projects

The National Science Foundation has awarded grants worth up to $40 million in the first round of what it expects to be a five-year program to encourage basic research to expand the limits of computer and information science.

The four grants announced this week in the Expeditions in Computing program will fund multidisciplinary research on the limits of our ability to understand nature and design systems, applying computer science to a sustainable society, an open mobile Internet and molecular programming.

Expeditions in Computing is a program of the NSF's Computer and Information Science and Engineering directorate and will fund programs at up to $2 million a year for five years. The directorate plans to hold five annual grants competitions. Original plans called for making three awards each year to result in long-term support for 15 projects, but an additional award was made this year.

"Because of their exceptional promise, four projects were funded in this, the first year of the program," said Timothy Pinkston, CISE Expeditions program director. "We can't wait to see the next cohort of proposals in the second annual competition, which is due to begin shortly."

NSF has announced a second round of competitions, with preliminary proposals due by Sept. 10. The deadline for full proposals is Feb. 10.

'Investigators are encouraged to come together within or across departments or institutions to combine their creative talents in the identification of compelling, transformative research agendas that promise disruptive innovations in computing and information for many years to come,' NSF said in announcing the new round of grants. 'The awards made in this program will complement projects supported by other CISE programs, which target particular computing or information disciplines or fields.'

The grant announcements came as NSF reported that federal funding of academic research and development programs has failed to keep pace with inflation for the second year in a row. Federal funding increased by 1.1 percent in fiscal 2007, to $30.4 billion. After adjusting for inflation this represents a 1.6 percent decrease from 2006. Adjusted for inflation, 2006 federal funding showed a 0.2 percent decline over the preceding year.

Overall R&D spending for science and engineering reported by universities was $49.4 billion in fiscal 2007. While the nonfederal portion of this funding grew by 5 percent adjusted for inflation in 2007 with noteworthy increases in R&D funding from industry, the federal portion is shrinking, although it remains the largest source of funding at 62 percent of the total.

Projects receiving first-round Expeditions in Computing grants are:
  • Understanding, Coping with and Benefitting from Intractability; by researchers at Princeton, Rutgers and New York universities and the Institute for Advanced Study. Computational intractability is the concept that limits our understanding and design of complex systems, illustrated by the mathematical difficulty of tasks as seemingly simple as efficiently scheduling visits to a series of locations or coloring maps so that no adjacent features use the same color. This complexity also is a foundation of cryptographic algorithms that enable online transactions. A Center for Intractability will be established at Princeton and the project will explore an array of interrelated topics including algorithms, complexity, cryptography, analysis, geometry, combinatorics and quantum mechanics.
  • Computational Sustainability: Computational Methods for a Sustainable Environment, Economy and Society; by researchers at Cornell University, Bowdoin College, the Conservation Fund, Howard University, Oregon State University and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. This will apply computational science to areas such as constraint optimization, dynamical systems and machine learning.
  • The Open Programmable Mobile Internet 2020; by researchers at Stanford University. This will address the broadband wireless mobile revolution, with a goal of creating an open platform enabling identity-based computing, which could help solve identity management and access control issues for both users and back end systems. This could help create seamless access to resources with a variety of media in a secure environment.
  • The Molecular Programming Project; by researchers at the California Institute of Technology and the University of Washington. This will develop fundamental computer science principles for programming information-bearing molecules such as DNA and RNA, to translate the natural techniques of biomolecular programming to programs using non-living chemistry.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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