Vital to invest in scientific research

Several weeks ago, a group of business leaders and university scholars in management, science and the social sciences convened at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center to forge a shared research agenda for cognitive computing.

The aim of the group, including leaders from MIT, New York University, Carnegie Mellon, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, was to set research priorities, engage in collaborations and identify gaps in research and funding—all with the goal of accelerating progress in creating computing systems that augment human effort and intelligence.

The group sent a clear message: It’s imperative for society to re-double its commitment to investing in scientific research that promises to deliver outsized benefits.

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At IBM, we believe that the world is on the verge of a major shift, the cognitive era, when computers will increasingly sense, learn, reason, predict and interact with people in ways that are more natural to us. These new capabilities will enable humans to overcome our mental biases, penetrate complexity and improve our decision making.

Over time, armed with these powerful new cognitive tools, we will be able to take on the challenges that have long confounded us. Cognitive machines will help government, industry and the non-profit sector address environmental challenges, resource shortages, and hunger. They can aid medical scientists in finding cures for cancer and other diseases. The tools can help businesses operate more effectively and efficiently. For individuals, cognitive systems promise to enable us to live more successful and fulfilling lives.

The launch of this era carries particular emotional resonance for me. I have long been inspired by a challenge issued in 1945 by Vannevar Bush, who was then the head of research for the U.S. government. In a report to President Truman called The Endless Frontier, he argued that basic research was "the pacemaker of technological progress" and called for aggressive investment by government in scientific inquiry. I believe that only through a strong alliance of government, industry and academia will sufficient progress be made on critical avenues of research.

The House Science Committee currently is reviewing the reauthorization of the America Competes Act, which was originally enacted with bipartisan support in 2007. We expect Senate action on reauthorization in the near future. The law would increase investments in the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, the Department of Energy Office of Science, and the Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy.

Unfortunately, tough economic times have taken a toll and the full potential of the law has not been realized. Cuts in these programs could slow the pace of economic growth and hinder our global competitiveness, as well as make it difficult to provide the educational opportunities for young people in science, technology engineering and mathematics that are so essential for innovation.

That’s why 180 university presidents recently sent an open letter to President Obama and Congress calling for action. They argued that “the combination of eroding federal investments in research and higher education, additional cuts due to sequestration, and the enormous resources other nations are pouring into these areas is creating a new kind of deficit for the United States: an innovation deficit.”

There’s good news, though. Many of our nation’s leaders understand the importance of investing more in science and technology. We urge them to do so without delay

The emergence of the cognitive era makes such commitments even more important. In the coming years, countries that make investments in cognitive science, Big Data analytics, nanotechnology and related fields will become full participants in a global economic transformation shaped by cognitive technologies. Those who do not take the initiative face the prospect of falling behind.

Society stands at a crossroads. In the past, at such junctures, the United States has grabbed the mantle of scientific leadership and worn it proudly. Notable examples are the Space Race and the Human Genome Project. On behalf of my children and coming generations of Americans, I hope we will continue to support science and progress.

Lemnios is vice president for Strategy at IBM Research