September 2010 Vol. 22/No. 4
By Eric Grimson, CRA Board Chair
A few weeks ago, members of the computing research community assembled for the 19th biennial Conference at Snowbird, the flagship conference for chairs of Ph.D.-granting departments of computing and allied fields and leaders from U.S. industrial and government computing research laboratories and centers. Here are some observations on trends in the field evident during the meeting.
Throughout the conference, I was struck by a sense of cautious optimism and renewed energy shared among department chairs. Challenges remain, but the perception that key aspects of the field are slowly, yet steadily, improving was evident throughout the conference:
There was also a growing sense of shared community among department heads. One instance emerged in the discussions and presentations of the CRA-E committees. The first version of the CRA Education group, chaired by Andy van Dam, released its final report, articulating a vision of how computation curricula have evolved: more flexible, better integrated with other disciplines, yet still providing a foundational mode of thinking that supports other intellectual disciplines. Their report, discussed in this issue of CRN, provides a valuable roadmap of alternatives being explored at multiple institutions, and articulates a vision for further evolution of curricular material. The second instantiation of CRA-E formally launched its activities at Snowbird during a packed breakfast meeting where the committee laid out plans and goals (as articulated elsewhere in this issue of CRN). Clearly there is a shared sense in the community of the need to adapt our curriculum to meet the interests of today’s students, and to develop a new generation of researchers who will tackle compelling challenges in security, energy, environmental sustainability, finance, health care, and information technology.
A second instance of shared community emerged during a session on faculty hiring practices. While every institution is governed by local nuances, and must act to best serve its needs, what emerged from this session was a conviction that coordination among departments can improve the hiring process for everyone. It was very encouraging to hear many department heads publicly commit to common dates for applications, interviews, and decisions, and to shared methods for communicating decisions in a timely manner to applicants.
Challenges remain, however. Despite significant efforts by many members of the CRA community, there is a clear sense that computation remains a “poor cousin” of the sciences in the eyes of national leaders—evidenced by challenges in ensuring that computation is a full partner in discussions on STEM education, in revising the CS AP exam to make it relevant to modern views on computing, and in ensuring that congressional committees include computing in their long-term visions for technological and scientific growth for the nation.
There is a concern that computing is still not fully “taken seriously” by policy makers, a view potentially exacerbated by the pending NRC rankings of doctoral programs, as articulated in the May 2010 issue of CRN. During a panel session at Snowbird, Charlotte Kuh presented current plans for the release of the NRC rankings report and data. Some progress has been made since last spring:
While this is an improvement in that rankings will not be based on flawed publication data, the lack of ranking of Computer Engineering departments, the lack of citation data for Computer Science publications, and the concern that even with best efforts by the CRA, the set of publications used by the NRC is incomplete—all create concern that the field may not be well presented in the final rankings. One continuing concern is that university administrators will naturally compare statistics across fields. If CS and CE are not fully and fairly reported, we may suffer in such a comparison, with artificially low productivity numbers compared to other fields. So work remains, and the CRA Board will continue to work with the NRC and other groups to create a fair evaluation system.
Eric Grimson is the Bernard Gordon Professor of Medical Engineering and head of the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department at MIT.