Microsoft Research Faculty Summit Inspires Fresh Approaches to Challenges and Concerns in Academia and Technology Industry

REDMOND, Wash., July 14, 2005 — Working at the forefront of U.S. computer science education, Maria Klawe sees many reasons for excitement and optimism about the future of technology research – but also ample cause for concern.

Maria Klawe, Dean of Engineering, Princeton University

“I believe that the global impact of computing technologies in the next decade, everywhere from education to healthcare to the environment, is going to be even greater than what we’ve seen in the last 20 years,” says Klawe, dean of engineering at Princeton University and a featured participant in the sixth annual Microsoft Research Faculty Summit unfolding Monday and Tuesday (July 18-19) at Microsoft’s corporate headquarters. “So there’s never been a greater need for fresh talent, ideas and creativity in this field.

“Yet we’re seeing sharp declines in government funding for academic research in the technology realm as well as lagging interest among U.S. students in pursuing computer science degrees in this country,” she notes. “That’s the crisis we’re facing, and it’s bigger than academia or industry or government alone can solve. We must work together.”

Fostering collaboration and a greater sense of vibrancy in technology are prominent themes at next week’s Faculty Summit, which is expected to bring together 400 academic researchers and other invitees to explore future directions in computing. Klawe and others planning to attend say Microsoft Research continues to play a leading role in these efforts through a broad array of initiatives that encourage different technology industry members to focus on their common ground.

“Microsoft has a level of visibility and credibility and capacity to command attention that is really helpful in terms of making progress on issues in computing,” Klawe says.

The summit will open with an informal dialogue between Klawe and Bill Gates, chairman and chief software architect of Microsoft, about issues of mutual interest – from research funding to student enrollments to the direction of new technology – on the minds of attendees. The dialogue is a new aspect of the Faculty Summit and will be available via webcast for external and internal audiences starting at 9 a.m. Pacific time Monday, July 18 (see Related Links). Also featured at the summit will be dozens of innovative projects that academic researchers have been pursuing with support from the External Research and Programs Group (formerly known as University Relations) of Microsoft Research, which strives to build stronger ties with higher education institutions and government agencies worldwide to help expand the frontiers of computing.

“Our Faculty Summit reflects both the diversity and the fast pace of innovation that is occurring not only within Microsoft but throughout the academic community and the technology industry at large,” says Rick Rashid, senior vice president of Microsoft Research. “We’re adamant about staying closely aligned with the needs of academic researchers and soliciting a great deal of input from them about current challenges in the field to ensure that Microsoft Research is collaborating in areas that are mutually relevant and beneficial.”

“Computing: The Next Decade”

With a theme of “Computing: The Next Decade,” this year’s Faculty Summit encompasses research and curriculum topics spanning security, mobility, software engineering, computer languages, human-computer interaction, embedded computing, technologies for education and a host of other fields. The agenda includes keynote presentations, workshops, panel discussions, hands-on technology demonstrations and other interactive sessions. Attendees at the invitation-only event represent more than 175 higher education institutions in 20 countries, along with delegates from a number of government agencies and private-sector technology organizations, including National Academy of Engineering, UNENIX and National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

“Academia is on the front lines of innovation in computing, but it is also nurturing the next wave of bright people who can bring that innovation to market,” says Sailesh Chutani, worldwide director of External Research and Programs in Microsoft Research, which organizes the Faculty Summit. “This conference is an opportunity for us to highlight the groundbreaking results Microsoft and the academic community have achieved together over the last 12 months. It’s also an important chance for all of us to explore future directions in computer science and to identify new opportunities for collaboration in the coming year.”

Support for More Than 180 Faculty Research Projects

A continuous slide presentation at the Faculty Summit will feature one-page summaries of more than 180 faculty research projects currently supported by Microsoft Research. The slides, which attendees will see on screen during breaks between sessions, underscore how computing technology is influencing a more extensive cross-section of economic and social realms. Studies involving HIV vaccines, cancer treatment, early detection of environmental disasters, and economic development in third-world countries are just a few examples of this trend.

Over the past year, Microsoft Research provided nearly US$4 million in grants to 78 faculty researchers through an open request for proposals (RFP) process. Winners of past awards say funding from Microsoft Research, while modest compared to that of federal sources such as the National Science Foundation, can prove decisive in achieving a breakthrough in research areas that might otherwise have to be scaled back or postponed indefinitely.

Ensuring Privacy, Security for Medical Data

Alfred Weaver, a computer science professor at the University of Virginia, leads a team of researchers that has worked with Microsoft Research over the past three years to develop new methods of ensuring privacy and security for medical data as it is exposed via Web services. His research group is building a prototype system that will be tested at a Virginia hospital, and Weaver is in discussions with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security about other potential uses for the technology.

“Without the support of Microsoft Research, we would never have been able to pull this off, because our work doesn’t really fit the criteria of most other major funding sources,” he says. “Beyond the financial help that it provides, I also really appreciate Microsoft Research’s commitment to bringing groups of researchers together at events like the Faculty Summit and encouraging us to do innovative things.”

The Faculty Summit also gives the university community invaluable insights into the future directions of Microsoft’s own software development, say Weaver and other attendees.

Faculty Getting Up Close

“The thing I like best is getting an up-close preview of what Microsoft is thinking about with respect to technology and research, especially because some absolutely top-notch researchers in the world are involved in those discussions,” says Susan Urban, a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering within the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering at Arizona State University, who is attending her fourth Faculty Summit. Presentations on Web services, nomadic computing and the use of Tablet PCs in classroom settings are among the sessions she has circled on her agenda, she says. “Plus, I always end up running into colleagues there, and the process of catching up on each other’s work tends to reinforce my enthusiasm about computing research.”

Beyond nurturing the work of established academic researchers, Microsoft Research has steadily increased its support of undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students in recent years. Approximately 200 students are serving internships at Microsoft Research labs in Redmond, San Francisco and Mountain View, Calif. In addition, through its PhD fellowships program, Microsoft Research is providing full tuition and living expenses for 12 doctoral students in the United States and another five in India while also giving them opportunities to work alongside Microsoft researchers.

“Microsoft plays a very important role in keeping this field vibrant by giving students outstanding opportunities to do important research that enriches their educational experience as well as helps advance them along their career path,” says Richard Anderson, a professor at the University of Washington who also spent a year working in Microsoft Research’s Redmond lab while on sabbatical in 2001-2002. “For both students and faculty, those types of experiences also provide invaluable insights into the business side of technology research and some appreciation of how to balance research priorities with all of the market forces that affect a large company like Microsoft.”

Anderson, who will demonstrate his work on a Tablet PC-based interactive teaching technology called Classroom Presenter at the Faculty Summit on Monday, adds that Microsoft Research is remarkably generous with its researchers’ time – from presenting at conferences and serving on various professional advisory boards to mentoring students.

A Partner to the Academic Community

“That’s where it’s very clear that Microsoft Research is a sincere partner to this community,” Anderson says. “Its researchers are genuinely interested in bridging the interests of academia to those of Microsoft and providing resources that are of honest value to the community.”

Indeed, conversations with members of its Faculty Advisory Board and other academic leaders influenced Microsoft Research to create the New Faculty Fellowship awards program, which recognizes computer science faculty members who are doing exceptional research work while in the first, second or third year of their teaching careers. Launched during last year’s Faculty Summit, the program awarded $200,000 grants to each of the first five New Faculty Fellows in May: Frédo Durand of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Subhash Khot of the Georgia Institute of Technology, Dan Klein of the University of California at Berkeley, Radhika Nagpal of Harvard University and Wei Wang of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“It has been extremely flattering and rewarding to have a company like Microsoft say that it really likes my research and believes I can make a positive impact in my field,” says Nagpal. Her work involves studying how instances of robust collective behavior in biological systems – such as the ability of fireflies to synchronize their flashing or the cells that comprise a person’s heart cause it to beat at regular intervals – might be adapted to the creation of distributed computing systems, such as sensor networks. The fact that Nagpal’s research is centered on abstract concepts rather than specific applications at this stage, and that she has not yet proved herself in the academic community, makes the support of Microsoft Research even more valuable.

“As a new faculty member, it’s a great weight off my mind to know that I now have the means to assemble and support a research team,” Nagpal says, “as well as the freedom to explore areas of computing that may not show value in the short term but certainly will in the long run.”

Durand, who is pursuing advanced research in realistic image synthesis and computational photography, agrees. “The fact that this award comes with no strings attached is great, because I can do the research I think is most promising,” he says. “I’m also benefiting from a lot of fruitful interactions with Microsoft researchers, who are among the very best in my field of computer graphics.”

Attending the Faculty Summit promises even greater opportunities to expand his perspectives, Durand added. “Research is all about new ideas, and there is nothing better than interacting with new people to inspire different ways of viewing our work.”

Klawe enthusiastically shares that feeling and says it is part of the core value of having Microsoft Research involved so closely with the academic community.

“It’s the only place that has been significantly increasing its long-term research capacity in recent years, and doing so in ways that enhance collaboration with universities,” she says. “I’ve always found Microsoft Research to be extremely open to helping us improve how we educate students and attract more of them to computing programs.”