Computing Community Consortium Blog

The goal of the Computing Community Consortium (CCC) is to catalyze the computing research community to debate longer range, more audacious research challenges; to build consensus around research visions; to evolve the most promising visions toward clearly defined initiatives; and to work with the funding organizations to move challenges and visions toward funding initiatives. The purpose of this blog is to provide a more immediate, online mechanism for dissemination of visioning concepts and community discussion/debate about them.

“Continuing Innovation in Information Technology”:
New NRC Report Links Government Research Investments to Nation’s Leadership

July 24th, 2012 / in policy, resources / by Erwin Gianchandani

The cover of the "Continuing Innovation in Information Technology" report being released today [image courtesy CSTB].At the Computing Research Association’s (CRA) biennial Snowbird Conference today, the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board (CSTB) will roll out a new report — “Continuing Innovation in Information Technology” — updating the widely known “tire tracks” diagram that links government investments in academic and industry research to the creation of new information technology industries that drive our economy.

According to the report (click on the link below to read more and see the new “tire tracks” figure!):

In 1995, the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) Computer Science and Telecommunications Board (CSTB) produced the report “Evolving the High Performance Computing and Communications Initiative to Support the Nation’s Information Infrastructure.” A graphic in that report, often called the “tire tracks” diagram because of its appearance, produced an extraordinary response by clearly linking government investments in academic and industry research to the ultimate creation of new information technology (IT) industries with more than $1 billion in annual revenue. Used in presentations to Congress and executive branch decision makers and discussed broadly in the research and innovation policy communities, the tire tracks figure dispelled the assumption that the commercially successful IT industry is self-sufficient, underscoring how much industry instead builds on government-funded university research, sometimes through long incubation periods of years and even decades. It also compellingly illustrates the complex nature of research in the field and the interdependencies between various subfields of computing and communications research.

The “tire tracks” figure was last updated by CSTB in 2003, so today’s report constitutes the first revision in nearly a decade:

Computing research and its impacts have continued to evolve and blossom in the years since the 2003 version of the tire tracks figure was published. With the support of the National Science Foundation, CSTB undertook a project to prepare an update. The task of the Committee on Depicting Innovation in Information Technology was threefold: (1) to reconsider important research areas and significant billion-dollar-plus IT industries that had emerged since the 2003 report, (2) to reconsider how best to characterize and depict these investments and impacts, and (3) to recap and update the material in the 2003 report that accompanies the tire tracks figure and presents related lessons on the impact of research on innovation in information technology.

The report begins with a compelling statement of “the impact of information technology”:

Information technology (IT) is widely understood to be the enabling technology of the 21st century. IT has transformed, and continues to transform, all aspects of our lives: commerce and finance, education, employment, energy, health care, manufacturing, government, national security, transportation, communications, entertainment, science, and engineering. IT and its impact on the U.S. economy — both directly (the IT sector itself) and indirectly (other sectors that are powered by advances in IT) — continue to grow in size and importance…


To appreciate the magnitude and breadth of its achievements, imagine spending a day without IT. This would be a day without the Internet and all that it enables. A day without diagnostic medical imaging. A day during which automobiles lacked electronic ignition, antilock brakes, and electronic stability control. A day without digital media — without wireless telephones, high-definition televisions, MP3 audio, cable- or Internet-delivered video, computer animation, and video games. A day during which aircraft could not fly, travelers had to navigate without benefit of the Global Positioning System (GPS), weather forecasters had no models, banks and merchants could not transfer funds electronically, and factory automation ceased to function. It would be a day in which the U.S. military lacked precision munitions, did not have the capabilities for network-centric warfare, and did not enjoy technological supremacy. It would be, for most people in the United States and the rest of the developed world, a “day the Earth stood still.”

It continues with a presentation of the new “tire tracks” figure and its significance:

Figure 1 [below], an update of the 1995 “tire tracks” figure and the intermediate 2003 version, illustrates, through examples, 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 reflects a complex research environment in which concurrent advances in multiple subfields — in particular within computer science and engineering but extending into other fields, too, from electrical engineering to psychology — have been mutually reinforcing, stimulating and enabling one another and leading to vibrant, innovative industries exemplified by top-performing U.S. firms…


Listed in the bottom row of Figure 1 are areas where major investments in basic research in subfields of computing and communications have had the impacts shown in the upper portions of the figure. Not depicted but equally important is research on the theoretical and algorithmic foundations of computing more broadly… The vertical red tracks represent university-based (and largely federally funded) research, and the blue tracks represent industry R&D (some of which is also government funded). The dashed and solid black lines indicate periods following the introduction of significant commercial products resulting from this research, the green lines represent billion-dollar-plus industries (by annual revenue) stemming from this research, and the thick green lines represent achievement of multibillion-dollar markets by some of the industries. The top rows list the present-day IT market segments and representative firms whose creation was stimulated by the decades-long research represented by the red and blue vertical tracks.

IT Sectors with Large Economic Impact: examples of the contributions of Federally-sponsored fundamental research to the creation of IT sectors, firms, and products with large economic impact [image courtesy CSTB].

And it emphasizes the complex university-industry-government partnership that yields innovation and leadership in IT:

Innovation in IT is made possible by a complex ecosystem encompassing university and industrial research enterprises, emerging start-up and more mature technology companies, those that finance innovative firms, and the regulatory environment and legal frameworks in which innovation takes place. It was within this ecosystem that the enabling technologies for each of the IT industries illustrated in Figure 1 were created. The government role has coevolved with the development of IT industries: its programs and investments have focused on capabilities not ready for commercialization and on the new needs that emerged as commercial capabilities grew, both of which are moving targets. A 2009 CSTB report, which examined the health of this ecosystem and noted the challenges posed to the U.S. position in IT leadership, underscored the critical importance of this federal investment…


Most often, the federal investment that contributed to the development of the industries shown at the top of Figure 1 took the form of grants or contracts awarded to university and industry researchers by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and other defense research agencies and/or the National Science Foundation (NSF), with the latter having come to play an increasingly important role in supporting academic IT research. A shifting mix of other funding agencies has also been involved, reflecting changes in the missions of these agencies and their needs for IT.”

In particular, the report describes the significance of government investment by delineating four factors capturing why Federal support has been so effective in stimulating innovation in computing:

The lessons of history are clear. A complex partnership among government, industry, and universities made the United States the world leader in IT, and information technology has become essential to our national security and economic and social well-being. The federal government’s sponsorship of fundamental research in IT — largely university-based — has been and will continue to be essential…


1. Federally funded programs have supported long-term research into fundamental aspects of computing, whose widespread practical benefits typically take years to realize.


2. The interplay of government-funded academic research and industry R&D has been an important factor in IT commercialization.


3. There is a complex interweaving of fundamental research and focused development.


4. Federal support for research has tended to complement, rather than preempt, industry investments in research.

The report goes on to detail theoretical and algorithmic foundations of computing, unanticipated results to date, and the advances that are expected with continued commitment to IT research.

To learn more, check out the report — available through the CSTB right now — here; it’s a fairly quick read!

(Contributed by Erwin Gianchandani, CCC Director)

“Continuing Innovation in Information Technology”:<br>New NRC Report Links Government Research Investments to Nation’s Leadership