What can the some of the most talented computer science researchers do with $10 million in funding over five years? As the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Expeditions in Computing program shows, they can explore the deep questions of computer science, and perhaps even create new industries.
On Monday, the NSF celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Expeditions in Computing program. Offering researchers the opportunity to work on a project for five years with strong funding, the program is NSF’s flagship for computer science research, and has produced some strong results.
“Projects at this scale are really important, because it allows us to pursue deeper, longer term collaborations and fundamental research that’s motivated by deep questions within our discipline, and really where our discipline is heading into the future,” said James Kurose, assistant director for the Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) directorate at NSF.
One example of Expeditions impact? Software-defined networking, one of the projects in the inaugural 2008 class of the program.
“This is now a multi-billion-dollar sector of our economy, and there are software-defined networking switches and routers that are being deployed in mainstream networks all across our country,” said Erwin Gianchandani, deputy assistant director for CISE. “That project, at the time, wasn’t called software-defined networking, but it eventually gave birth to the innovations, and from that project gave birth to companies and they led to pick-up by industry in what is now software-defined networking.”
The projects currently being funded by Expeditions include a wide variety, from working with industry on advancing quantum computing to developing alternatives to x-rays to socially assistive robots and many more.
“What you folks have done as a PI [principal investigator] community is just really remarkable” said Kurose. “I spent six months at OSTP [the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy], and one of the things that really opened my eyes to the appreciation that folks across government, the executive branch, Congress, and staffers, how much appreciation folks have for our discipline, and in particular, what our discipline inside NSF has been able to do.”
But support for these projects does not stop at the end of the grant.
“Back in 2013, we rolled out a bit of a companion to the Expeditions program, called Innovation Transitions, or InTrans,” said Gianchandani. “The idea behind InTrans was to really allow researchers who have these five-year projects to explore the possibility of working directly with industry, particularly as they get to the fourth and the fifth year of their projects, to be able to take some of the technology they have worked on and some of the emerging results from their research activities, and be able to harden that technology and mature that technology to start to transition that technology into practice.” He noted that the program looked to find three dollars of matching funding for every dollar from NSF, allowing projects to sustain funding while transitioning to practice.
With 22 projects over the last 10 years already leaving a lasting impact, NSF and the Expeditions program are looking to the next 10 years and the next breakthroughs in computing.