Bill asked me if I thought the ICS conference truly was innovative, and in particular how I thought the content compared to that of STOC or FOCS. I've never been to either STOC or FOCS (though I've read some papers and seen some videotaped presentations from those conferences), so I don't consider myself qualified to answer that question directly. However, something related has been on my mind, and I think it's important enough to share with the larger community.
I do believe it is innovative and politically significant that ICS literally represents another country heard from -- and that the derivatives paper appeared there, not in either STOC or FOCS. Compare the derivatives paper to Gentry's homomorphic encryption paper. Gentry's result is of course a stunning breakthrough in an area that had remained wide-open for many years; and, to my (brief) reading, it contains more profound mathematics than the derivatives paper. However, it's quite possible that the derivatives paper will spark changes in the regulation of the multi-trillion-dollar financial product industry. If that happens, it would be reasonable to argue that the derivatives paper would be one of the most influential TCS papers ever.
That comparison, to me, captures the value new concepts can add to the field. US consumers would only have to save $10 million on financial services for Uncle Sam to be 100% repaid for his investment in an Intractability Center. I don't it's a coincidence that that Center's director is a co-author of the derivatives paper, and also a co-author of this CACM position paper on how computer scientists should represent their field to better raise money.
I've had the last two paragraphs of that paper on my office door for a few months now, because I got sick of people complaining to me that there was nothing to be done about financial woes. I'll reproduce those paragraphs here.
One wonders if the failure of computer scientists to articulate the intellectual excitement of their field is not one of the causes of their current funding crisis in the U.S. Too often, policymakers, and hence funding agencies, treat computer science as a provider of services and infrastructure rather than as an exciting discipline worth studying on its own. Promises of future innovation and related scientific advances will be more credible to them if they actually understand that past and current breakthroughs arose from an underlying science rather than from a one-time investment in 'infrastructure.
It is high time the computer science community began to reveal to the public its best kept secret: its work is exciting science -- and indispensable to society.
I also believe it is no coincidence that both co-authors of that paper are on the Steering Committee of ICS. There's nothing like a conference that encourages innovation to demonstrate "promises of future innovation and scientific advances."
A generation or two ago, aerospace contractors used the Space Race as a fundraising tactic. I got the impression from some comments on my first ICS blog post that people were threatened by the idea that China might be a major TCS player, and would prefer if I hadn't even mentioned the possibility. I think that attitude is foolish, and, rather, China's presence on the world TCS stage should be embraced, and used as a reason it is that much more important for the US to invest in theory. After all, if Washington allows things to continue as they are, in ten years, it could be facing a Square Root of Log N Gap!
Okay, that last phrase made me laugh when it popped into my head, so I figured I'd share it. My point, however, is a serious one. A handful of Ph.D's will get postdocs this year at IAS or through the Simons Fellowship. Most people won't, even if they're good. If the CI Fellows program isn't renewed, that means pretty much everyone else is going abroad. In fact, when I was at ICS, a senior researcher told me that he was advising students and recent grads to go abroad, not just for postdocs but also for assistant professorships, and only to return to the US for tenure. That is not a recipe for maintaining scientific prominence in a field, especially if one's "major competitor" is investing heavily in recruitment of theorists.
I will end with a question to consider, if I may. How can we better communicate that computer science, and, in particular, theoretical computer science, is indispensable to society? The government of China doesn't seem to have any trouble understanding this. What about the government of the United States?