Thursday, January 19, 2006

Theory at NSF

From Sanjeev Arora
Bill Steiger of Rutgers is the new NSF program officer in charge of Theoretical Computer Science (TCS) and he has assumed this position now. There appear to be other ongoing changes within the Theoretical Foundations cluster. As CCF director Foster explained at STOC, up to 30% of the funds in the cluster will be placed in a fund which will give out grants via a centralized mechanism. (It is still unclear what the final effect will be on TCS funding.)

NSF program directors would also like to make members of the theoretical computer science research community aware of the following upcoming proposal deadlines:

Proposals that explore fundamentally new (emphasis mine) ideas about network design and information security are sought, and participation by the TCS community is welcome.

Realistically, these will probably involve TCS researchers teaming up with experimentalists to develop proposals that focus on rigorous approaches to well motivated problems in networking and security and that have a significant theoretical component as well as a significant experimental component.

What Arora leaves unsaid is that there are no NSF general programs in core theoretical computer science accepting new solicitations this year.


  1. I'm a recent C.S. graduate looking to become a graduate student and concentrate in theory. (I've been waiting for a post like this to ask this question of a larger audience.)

    I'm interested in becoming a researcher, specifically in theory, and I'm confident enough to give it a try. But I'm realistic enough to know that many people don't complete their Ph.D's and going after one is a calculated risk. What I want to know is, in the estimation of the people who read this blog, just how hard is it to make a living as a theorist? How "good" do you have to be to make contributions that people are interested in funding? By that I mean, how competitive is it? The Taulbee survey indicates that almost all of those coming out with a concentration in theory were employed, but do people typically start researching things in related applied areas once they're employed? Are they all cryptographers now? Maybe that would be okay, but I'm always trying to get an idea of what's out there to better understand the decisions I'm making. Thanks for any of your opinions!

  2. Janos Simon says: "It is also true that there is little justification for mediocre Theory. A competent but not outstanding database specialist has many oprtunities to do honest, not boring, and possibly very lucrative things, but what does a competent but not very good theorist have to offer?"

    Janos is confusing database specialists with experimental database researchers. I see no reason why the above statement does not apply as well to experimental database researchers.

  3. Thanks for your response! Your comment about "mediocre theory" is well-taken, and I hadn't thought about it that way before. I'm not just worried about not completing a Ph.D., I'm worried about job prospects afterwards. I have a good job as a programmer, so I need to justify the indirect costs. Finding work that challenges and interests me mathematically would be worth it, and I'd like to teach, too. But if I'm going to just get plopped back into a similar job with only a slightly higher salary, it's not worth it. So it's just a question of risk.