Clinton Vows to Boost Computer Research

Science made it into President Clinton's State of the Union address last night--but just barely. Although most of the 77-minute speech aired White House plans for saving the Social Security retirement system and touted a host of other programs, Clinton did devote three sentences to a proposal to raise spending on computer research.

Speculation that Clinton would use the occasion to highlight the Administration's commitment to science spending was rampant among policy watchers earlier this week, after the White House invited National Science Foundation (NSF) chief Rita Colwell to accompany First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to the annual ceremony. Some NSF staff members even hoped the president might single out their boss--the first woman to lead the agency--by name. Instead, Clinton introduced some of the more glamorous guests, including home run slugger Sammy Sosa, who was cited for inspirational charity work in the Dominican Republic, and Air Force pilot Jeff Taliaferro, who bombed Iraq.

Careful listeners interested in science, however, were rewarded with a few rapid-fire lines midway through the speech--just after a promise to help American farmers and before a pledge to squash the Y2K computer bug. "We must strengthen our lead in technology," Clinton said. "It was government investment that led to the creation of the Internet. I propose a 28% increase in long-term computing research."

White House officials said Clinton will ask Congress to spend $366 million on the initiative, which has its origins in an August 1998 report from a presidential task force. The panel recommended that the government spend $1 billion over 5 years to revitalize long-term, basic research on software, hardware, and computer networks. Vice President Al Gore is expected to outline the effort, which will initially involve NSF and at least three other agencies, later this week.

Meanwhile, computer scientists are enjoying the bit part their field played in the nationally televised event. "I was thrilled," says computer scientist Larry Smarr of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. "It was really important to see the president of the United States emphasize the need for long-term research."