The past 50 years have brought tremendous advances in information technology (IT). Rapid improvements in hardware, software, and networking capabilities have transformed our everyday lives and enabled extraordinary scientific discoveries and engineering achievements. People today are virtually surrounded by information, thanks to the myriad technologies they have developed to capture, store, process, and share it. From the inner workings of the human brain to the complex mechanics of the global economy, IT is crucial to revealing how the world works and to developing data-powered innovations to improve people’s lives.
The evolution from room-sized punched card computers to today’s ubiquitous mobile devices, social networks, and ever-flowing streams of big data—all in an exceedingly short period of human history—is remarkable. Yet these developments were not a foregone conclusion. Few of the technologies now taken for granted could have been imagined at their beginning. Even for keen observers and visionaries, it is rarely obvious how incremental improvements, or even significant technological leaps, will spark radically new applications across diverse fields and industries. It is thus only in hindsight that the true value of precursor technologies becomes apparent. Take for example, two major technological breakthroughs that occurred in 1969: man walked on the moon, and a group of computer scientists used a new approach called packet switching to send the first message from one computer to another, a step that paved the way for the development of the Internet. Although hundreds of millions of people breathlessly watched the moon landing on live television, it is only in hindsight that it can be appreciated how profoundly packet switching would come to affect the day-to-day lives of future generations.
It is clear that technology profoundly matters in today’s economy and society. IT underpins economic prosperity and national security and accelerates the pace of scientific
discovery across all fields. The Internet has been shown to directly support 21 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) growth in mature economies.1 The value that information and communication technologies bring to the U.S. GDP grew by nearly 10 percent between 2008-2013, and this sector represented 5.7 percent of the U.S. GDP in 2013.2 With federal funding in fiscal year 2010 of less than 0.03 percent of U.S. GDP for networking and information technology research and development, this area brings a substantial return on investment for government funding.3 Jobs in software development are projected to grow 17 percent from 2014 to 2024 to keep up with industry demand.4
What propelled past technological developments, and how can that momentum continue to be built on? What lessons can be gleaned from past successes—and from failures? How can technological creativity and know-how be channeled across government, academia, and the business sector to support a more prosperous, healthy, and secure future? These are some of the questions the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine5 has tackled in a series of workshops and consensus studies over the past 20 years.
The 1995 National Research Council (NRC) report Evolving the High Performance Computing and Communications Initiative to Support the Nation’s Information Infrastructure, by the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board (CSTB), offered an overview of the development of high-performance computing and communications technologies along with 13 recommendations for supporting these technologies.6 A notable figure included in that report, often called the “tire tracks” diagram because of its resemblance to such markings, garnered significant attention in the halls of Congress, among the leadership of federal agencies, and across the research and innovation policy community. The figure, which has subsequently been updated several times, illustrates the degree to which the IT industry builds on government-funded university research, often over incubation periods of years or decades.
A few years after that seminal report, the 1999 NRC report Funding a Revolution: Government Support for Computing Research reviewed key advances fueled by government-supported research and articulated the economic rationale for government funding in this
1 J. Manyika and C. Roxburgh, 2011, The Great Transformer: The Impact of the Internet on Economic Growth and Prosperity, McKinsey Global Institute, http://www.mckinsey.com/industries/high-tech/our-insights/the-greattransformer.
2 U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis, “Interactive Access to Industry Economic Accounts Data: GDP by Industry,” release date April 21, 2016, http://www.bea.gov/iTable/iTable.cfm?ReqID=51&step=1#reqid=51&step=51&isuri=1&5114=a&5102=15 [path from www.bea.gov: Interactive Data/GDP-by-industry/Begin using the data/Gross Output by Industry/Gross Output by Industry (A) (Q)/Annual/Next Step].
3 Networking and Information Technology Research and Development, 2009, FY2010 Supplement to the President’s Budget, May, http://www.nitrd.gov/pubs/2010supplement/FY10Supp-FINALFormat-Web.pdf.
4 U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition: Software Developers,http://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-informationtechnology/software-developers.htm.
5 Effective July 1, 2015, the institution is called the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. References in this report to the National Research Council are used in an historical context identifying programs prior to July 1.
6 National Research Council (NRC), 1995, Evolving the High Performance Computing and Communications Initiative to Support the Nation’s Information Infrastructure, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.
area.7 The 2003 report Innovation in Information Technology explored how decisions about fundamental computer science research affect progress in information technology and expanded upon the tire tracks diagram.8 The 2009 report Assessing the Impacts of Changes in the Information R&D Ecosystem: Retaining Leadership in an Increasingly Global Environment examined the erosion of the U.S. leadership role in the IT sector.9 It contains a summary of key lessons from the 2003 report, reproduced here in Box I.1.
Most recently, the 2012 NRC report Continuing Innovation in Information Technology described the growing size and importance of the IT sector and offered the most recent update of the tire tracks diagram10 (reproduced, with a correction,11 in Figure I.1). The diagram illustrates how fundamental research in IT, conducted in industry and universities, has led to the introduction of entirely new product categories that ultimately became billion-dollar industries. It uses examples to depict the rich interplay between academic research, industry research, and products and to indicate the cross-fertilization resulting from multidirectional flows of ideas, technologies, and people. Each arrow linking tracks in the figure represents a documented flow of technology within or across areas. It uses a graphic to portray and connect areas of major investment in basic research, largely at universities and largely federally funded, and industry R&D. It also shows the introduction of significant commercial products resulting from this research, billion-dollar-plus industries (by annual revenue) stemming from this research, and present-day IT market segments and representative U.S. firms whose creation was stimulated by the decades-long research. The graphic, which is of necessity incomplete and symbolic in nature, provides a framework within which additional contributions and connections can be documented and illustrated.
A common thread running through these past Academies reports has been a core finding that many of the technological breakthroughs and impacts seen over the past decades have resulted from a innovation ecosystem at the intersection of the federal government, academic research, industry research and development, and product development. These reports demonstrate how the government–academia–industry IT innovation ecosystem works, why it works, and what the future prospects for such research could
7 NRC, 1999, Funding a Revolution: Government Support for Computing Research, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.
8 NRC, 2003, Innovation in Information Technology, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
9 NRC, 2009, Assessing the Impacts of Changes in the Information R&D Ecosystem: Retaining Leadership in an Increasingly Global Environment, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
10 NRC, 2012, Continuing Innovation in Information Technology, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
11 The computer architecture to microprocessors track in Figure 1.1 has been corrected from the 2012 version. The computer architecture to microprocessor track in the 2012 version of the figure had its origins in the reduced instruction set computing (RISC) track in the 1995 figure. However, given that the current track is labeled in terms of computer architecture and microprocessors more generally, it is more accurate to (1) adjust the academic and industry research tracks to start in 1965 because architecture research predates microprocessors and indeed goes back to the origin of computing in the 1940s and (2) reflect the market size for microprocessors more generally by starting the product track in 1971 (when Intel released the 4004), and making the line solid at 1981, when the microprocessor industry reached $1 billion in revenue.
be, depending on how—and how much—the nation invests in it.
It is from this context that the impetus for the Continuing Innovation in Information Technology workshop emerged. With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the CSTB of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine convened a committee of experts to organize and host a workshop exploring how academic and industry research has underpinned innovation in information technology and has had significant economic or societal impact. Chaired by Peter Lee, corporate vice president of Microsoft Research, the workshop provided a venue for invited technical leaders and researchers, primarily representing the business sector, to exchange first-person narratives illustrating the link between government investments in academic and industry research and the ultimate creation of new information technology industries. Speakers were asked to build upon the framework of the tire tracks diagram to collect, display, and analyze what is known about the interplay between academic and industry research; the multidirectional flows of ideas, technologies, and people; and the impacts of research in this area. Held in Washington, D.C., on March 5, 2015, the workshop included 15 presenters (see Appendix C).
By collecting and comparing narratives from multiple IT fields and applications, this report offers a window into how government funding has directly and indirectly led to innovations that have yielded—or are poised to yield—huge economic gains nationally and globally. Speakers traced the roles of funding and leadership from government bodies such as NSF, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Office of Naval Research, and the U.S. Congress in enabling progress across a wide range of technologies and applications, including mobile applications, wearable technology, robotics, artificial intelligence, wireless technology, cybersecurity, and numerous other areas.
Underlying many of these stories is a common theme that government funding and academic research not only have made considerable past contributions to the knowledge foundation on which the IT industry is built, but also have played a unique and essentially irreplaceable role in the development of groundbreaking new technologies. While the structures and incentives of the business sector are ideal for incrementally improving products and capitalizing on new technologies to create valuable products and services, government and academia are best suited to advance transformative research. It is through the combination of and interchange among all of these sectors that we can reap the biggest gains. IT has yielded uncountable economic, scientific, and quality-of-life benefits over the past decades. Understanding how the innovation ecosystem works is critical to keeping it going in the decades to come.