Joan Feigenbaum and Michael Mitzenmacher have written a report "Towards a Theory of Networked Computation" available on the group's web page. The report is still under revision and Joan welcomes your comments.
SIGACT Chair Richard Ladner writes in the latest SIGACT News about the importance of the required Broader Impacts criteria in NSF proposals.
One way to think about the Broader Impacts criterion is that when we receive money from the people of the United States through NSF, the people would like to know ahead of time of what benefit the research may or will be to society. If there is little or no benefit then why should the people continue to support NSF? When NSF goes to Congress to ask for money, it is going to the people's representatives, who ask for justification to spend the people's money on scientific research. Basically, NSF's funding, and ours indirectly, depend on the belief by the public that broader impacts come from our research. Some people have said to me that a focus on Broader Impacts is a move away from basic research to more mission oriented research, or research with strings attached. If we look at the ways that we can satisfy the Broader Impacts criterion, they are very general, and relate to education, broadening participation by underrepresented groups, and other benefits to society. Please read the representative activities for concrete ideas for how to include Broader Impacts in our proposals.
As SIGACT Chair, I am trying to help increase the funding for computer science theory research. The best way to increase funding for research is to convince people it is important to them and the people around them. There is a difference between "important" and "useful". Artists are able to convince people to buy art, not because it is useful, but because it inspires them. Astronomers convince people to pay them to study the stars, not because they are useful (except for our own star, the sun), but because the stars are fascinating in their own right. Understanding the birth and possible death of the universe is of no practical value, but is just a fundamental question.
All this said, I am a firm believer in serendipity. Often, research leads to unexpected results and unanticipated applications. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is quite rare and probably not common enough to convince people to provide large amounts of research money. The best approach is to have a great story about the benefits of theoretical computer science research and its promise for the future. This will generate enough money for all of us so that rare serendipitous events will happen naturally in the course of doing our research.