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MAKING IT BETTER: EXPANDING INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY RESEARCH TO MEET SOCIETY'S NEEDS
Pasteur-style research in IT sometimes aims at solving new problems that arise in older areas. The Internet satisfied an older research goal of carrying many types of data traffic over a single network, and it generates new research problems associated with multimedia (including audio and video), congestion control, quality of service, and new communication paradigms such as broadcast and multicast. In wireless communications, rapidly increasing demands for service stimulate research into smart antenna systems and multiuser detection to achieve dramatic increases in capacity. More generally, IT researchers are still struggling to find the best ways to tell computers what to do—that is, to write correct software efficiently. They are also still struggling to find the best hardware designs that can scale up to many thousands of processors harnessed to a single computation. These are difficult research problems that endure.
Pasteur-style research tends to have long time horizons. It involves a cycle in which novel designs are worked out, implemented, and evaluated in use. The cycle is often long because each individual stage may require that new techniques be developed. For example, new programming language designs require developing techniques for translating programs into machine language. Implementations of the language have to be complete, robust, and widely available before widespread use begins; evaluation requires that a number of programmers learn the new language, apply it to a range of systems, and accumulate evidence about the value of the language; only some languages will survive these processes. Previous reports on retrospective assessments of IT have demonstrated how much of IT research has yielded results that became evident only after periods of time measurable in decades, a reality that may seem counterintuitive—the new cliché of “Internet time” has not erased the inherent lags in creating and leveraging new scientific and engineering knowledge (see CSTB, 1995, 1999a). A long-term perspective also fosters recognition of the key role of unexpected research results, which lay the foundations for new technologies, products, and entire industries.
In the IT sector, applied research differs from Pasteur-style research only in degree: the focus is sufficiently narrow that results usually apply only to specific applications, products, or systems. Applied IT research tends to be short term, with clear paths to the transfer of research results into production. In one example from industry, a research project investigated how to obtain maximum data rates from a specific disk drive attached to a specific computer that was to be used to transmit digital video data over a network in real time. Unlike conventional disk-driver software, which sacrifices performance to ensure that there are no errors in the data read from the disk, this application emphasized speed above all else. This investigation was (arguably) research because it was not