The Election’s Effect on the Future of IT


Tomorrow is a big day in this country. The individuals we vote into office will have a tremendous effect on how the U.S. pulls out of this years-old economic funk. They also will play a big role in the future of scientific and IT advancement, which is something I presume anyone reading this takes very seriously. Looking forward, these two concerns likely will be intertwined, and certain evidence points suggest a stark contrast in how different parties approach this nexus.

Will Research Funding Continue to Drop?

Probably the biggest area of concern is research funding, which Michael Feldman over at HPCwire has been following closely over the past couple of years. In 2008, proposed funding for the American Competitiveness Initiative — a bipartisan program designed to boost funding for the Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, and National Institute of Standards and Technology — came in at an average of 80 percent short of proposed funding for the three agencies. In May of this year, congressional Republicans blocked passage of an already watered-down bill that would have awarded $47 billion over three years for science and technology programs.

Yes, the DoE received a nice chunk of stimulus money earlier this year — and doled out $47 million of it to Green IT projects — but unless all predictions of a congressional power shift are incorrect, any future stimulus bills seem unlikely. In the run-up to Election Tuesday, challenging Republicans have cited the 2009 stimulus package as a prime reason to vote out incumbent Democrats.

We saw the potential results of inadequate funding last week, when China stole the U.S.’ top spot on the Top 500 supercomputer list. At 2.5 petaflops, the Chinese Tianhe-1A supercomputer system is 1.4 times faster than the previous fastest system, Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Cray (s CRAY) XT-5 Jaguar. Having the fastest supercomputing is about more than just bragging rights; Virginia Polytechnic Institute’s Wu-chun Feng said in a New York Times (s nyt) article on the Tianhe-1A, “One could argue that this hits the foundation of our economic future.”

It’s arguable that supercomputing and overall national innovation go hand-in-hand; China already has our number in terms of clean-energy development. The U.S. first lost its top supercomputer position in 2002, but regained the title in 2004 and has held it since. Peter Harsha wrote at the Computing Research Policy blog, “There’s a lot we can do to stay competitive, but a sustained commitment to research should be at the top of the list.” The Internet was born of research spending, as were the World Wide Web (albeit from CERN in Switzerland) and the pioneering Mosaic web browser.

HPCwire’s Feldman also noted an interesting factoid: According to a July 2009 Pew Research poll, only 6 percent of scientists identify themselves as Republicans. I’d guess even fewer scientists identify themselves as members of the Tea Party; the Pew poll found that only 9 percent of scientists identify themselves as “conservative,” with the rest spread among “moderate” (35 percent), “liberal” (52 percent) and “very liberal” (14 percent). Given the push among both Republican and Tea Party candidates to take an axe to government spending, and the relative lack of a scientific voter base, the next few years of scientific advancement could be in limbo.

Privacy Legislation Might Hang in the Balance

To a degree, tomorrow’s election also could affect the future of cloud computing. Senator Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) -– someone who appears to have his finger on the pulse of privacy concerns –- is up for reelection. Leahy introduced the Personal Data Privacy and Security Act of 2009, which, among other things, would enact federal laws for notifying consumers of security breaches and criminalizing the knowing concealment of security breaches. That bill has been languishing since passing out of the Judiciary Committee in November 2009.

Lately, Leahy has been the congressional champion of a revamped Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which would improve Fourth Amendment protections for electronically stored information such as emails, photos and data. Microsoft (s MSFT), Google (s GOOG) and others have been lobbying for such legislation as a way to allay privacy concerns that hinder adoption of cloud services. Leahy, who is the Judiciary Committee chairman, promises to continue this fight should he win his race and the Democrats maintain control of the Senate.

Clearly, elections and politics are about much more than computer science spending and privacy legislation, but it’s worth noting how these things might be affected by the decisions our fellow citizens make at the polls. As any IT startup can tell you, success often requires progressive ideas backed by a fair amount of money. At the risk of painting with too broad a brush, our two (now three) primary political parties tend to approach these things very differently – something that might bear consideration when it’s time to pull the lever.

Image courtesy of Flickr user brooklyntheborough.

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