Inspired a bit by some inspirational, high-level talks I've seen the last few days (see Matt's take on Ed Lazowska's talk at Harvard here), I've been thinking about what I'll call the computer science ecosystem. The inspirational talks often refer a lot to the grand sweeping visions -- science will all be done on the cloud, computerized automobile systems will make driving safer and more efficient, etc. These generally sound amazing, although to some they can also sound a bit out there. (Robobees and Sean Hannity, anyone?) On the other hand, there's a lot of basic work down in the trenches creating the building blocks that eventually make the sweeping visions possible. While some of that work is explicitly done as part of these bigger projects, a lot of scientists are working on their own little pieces of the puzzle without specific regard to the big picture. And a lot of good work gets done that way too.
So what is the right sort of "research ecosystem" we should have, that balances between BIG and small projects, between individual researchers pursuing their goals and larger groups, between researchers focused on "core areas and problems" and researchers focused on interdisciplinary problems? How do we promote and build such an ecosystem that lets the various types of research flourish, hopefully in ways that the sum is greater than the parts?
I don't pretend that I have the answers to these important questions. They're certainly thought about over at the NSF, which decides how much money to distribute among small, medium, and large proposals, and how much to give to different programs, some of which specifically aim to promote interdisciplinary research. And discussions about these questions have been (and I assume still are) a significant issue for the ACM-SIGACT Committee for the Advancement of Theoretical Computer Science, which gives feedback to the NSF on such matters.
Certainly a concern that always springs to mind is that the funding model for CS will come to be dominated by big projects, leaving little room for the individual researcher or even small groups more common in theory. But in terms of increasing the funding pie overall for CS, the big project ideas are often much more persuasive, which seems to be the push taken by the Computing Community Consortium. I don't know currently what the dollar spend looks like from NSF or the other funding agencies; right now it still feels to me that we have a suitably diverse research ecosystem, but perhaps my view is limited.