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Computing and the National Science Foundation, 1950 - 2016 : building a foundation for modern computing
Freeman P., Adrion W., Aspray W., ACM, New York, NY, 2019. 1270 pp.  Type: Book
Date Reviewed: Feb 20 2020

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is foundational to modern computing, and this organizational history incorporates oral histories and NSF documents to describe how NSF programs began and grew to become the primary funding agency of information technology (IT). The NSF supported the first widely used web browser (Netscape), initiated algorithms at the core of the Google search engine, and grew interest in a public Internet. As the first comprehensive history of NSF’s role in modern computing, the volume is of interest to historians of computing, policymakers, and leaders in government and academia.

The Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) Directorate and previously the NSF played a central but largely unknown role in growing computing from the 1950s to the present. Increasingly, since the mid-1990s, CISE provided almost all the critical funding for basic computer science (CS) research, cutting-edge research, and advanced computing. Nonetheless, there is a dearth of documentation about this story. To address this gap, two computing practitioners--Peter Freeman and W. Richard Adrian--collaborated with historian William Aspray to produce this volume. As a result, publicly available research materials were deposited at the Charles Babbage Institute (CBI) of the University of Minnesota.

The four objectives of the collaboration include: collection of records and oral histories; documentation of primary sources; a readable and accessible narrative; and, finally, an analysis of NSF CISE, with an emphasis on CISE since 1986. Given the collaborative nature of the participants and broad fields represented, the text is more akin to a collection of linked essays, similar to conference papers rather than a monograph. Part 1 provides a narrative of NSF and CISE. Part 2 examines aspects of the narrative in more depth. And Part 3 supplies conclusions, appendices, a list of interviews, short biographies, a description of the prepared archive, and a list of abbreviations and acronyms.

Starting with one of its most important contributions, the volume serves as a chronological history of science information, computing facilities, education, and basic research from 1950 to 1974. The NSF advanced these areas separately until consolidation in the 1980s. During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt promoted the spending of funds for scientific research and development, and for 15 years thereafter, federal spending connected to the military, atomic power, and space supported computing and communications research. President Harry Truman signed a Congressional bill in 1950, creating the NSF; however, expenditures for computing did not increase until the 1970s.

After the Sputnik launch in 1957, academia struggled with the question of how to understand the basic sciences behind computing. Today these sciences are classified variously as CS, engineering, information systems, IT, and management information science. Computing as a discipline underwent clarification in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the early 1960s, the fields and practitioners of IT and information science were better defined. IT--applied science--was staffed by information specialists, while information science--or research--was staffed by information scientists. The CISE Directorate began in 1986, as a move away from library scientists and specialists in favor of support for computer and information scientists.

Scientific computing programs were redirected in the early 1980s to high-performance computing and then in the 2000s to cyber infrastructure. NSF programs supporting computer engineering and information science research moved from administrative to research directorates. In a brief amount of time, about 15 years, computing programs at NSF evolved from weak offices to a directorate that led major national initiatives. NSF produced Turing Award winners, as did hundreds of fellows from related agencies. From the founding of CISE in 1986 through 1998, the validity of CS as a fundamental discipline continued to be questioned; however, by the end of the period, CISE elicited increased recognition, spending, and reliable leadership from its scientific community.

During the late 1990s, there was a fortuitous confluence of technical progress, leadership, and socioeconomic prosperity. At the same time, CISE grew within the NSF. About a decade earlier, personal computers were only beginning to be widely distributed and individually owned; remote access to a computer over telephone was still a novelty; and software development was deficient. Gordon Moore’s prediction of the exponential growth of computing power continued unabated and novel applications were realized. By the mid-1990s, remotely accessible applications came online over the World Wide Web, fueled by a venture capital infrastructure thirsting for profits. Finally, the tragedy of 9/11 impacted the country’s commercial ventures, and computing realized success in defense, intelligence operations, and economic prosperity.

The work is important to understanding NSF history, the documentation of information about key figures, and how the NSF played a key role in the development of what is considered modern computing.

Reviewer:  G. Mick Smith Review #: CR146898 (2008-0185)
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