Microsoft's Academic Agenda

April 28, 2005

Over the last 18 months, Microsoft has shifted its support for academic research to involve more universities and more kinds of studies. The shifts come at a time that Bill Gates, the company's founder, has become increasingly concerned about declines in support for key research agencies and declining student interest in computer science.

Gates was in Washington Wednesday to participate in a discussion at the Library of Congress about the importance of government policy to support research. He said that the outlook for the United States was "a bit scary" because of the country's failure to build its pool of scientists and to provide them with enough money.

Among the large Microsoft contingent that traveled from Washington State to Washington, D.C., was Sailesh Chutani, director of worldwide university relations for Microsoft Research. In an interview, he described the shifts taking place in the company's approach to supporting university research.

For many years now, Microsoft has been known for spending hundreds of millions of dollars on its own research centers and attracting many top scientists from academe. The company has also signed large research contracts with top universities to work with Microsoft on specific research questions in highly directed work.

While those programs continue, Microsoft is now committed to a series of RFP-style programs that have been started in the last 18 months and will expand over time, Chutani said. These programs are run with peer review panels and involve direct awards to university researchers, whose work then remains in the public domain.

There have been nine rounds of grants awarded in North America, and three for researchers in the rest of the world, and the approach will continue, Chutani said -- on top of the forms of research the company traditionally operated. Topics for the initial rounds included computer gaming curriculum, software engineering, and tablet PC computing.

Most of the individual grants are for between $50,000 and $100,000 (with a total round of support being anywhere from $300,000 to $1 million). Chutani said that the company tries to get the most bang for its buck by making the awards as gifts, not grants. That way, he said, the universities cannot charge the recipients for overhead -- a significant fee at many institutions.

The grants also represent a shift for Microsoft Research in that scholars from any university can apply. Previously, Chutani said, when the company was looking for university partners on projects, it worked from a list of 60 top universities and considered only them. About one-fourth of the grants in the new programs ended up going to researchers whose institutions were not on the list of 60. Chutani cited Clemson University, Southern Polytechnic State University, and the University of Nevada at Las Vegas as examples.

Among the topics for RFP's being planned now are "digital inclusion" (how to make computers that can help people who are illiterate or are in developing nations without access to connectivity) and a second round on technology security issues. The first round of grants on security issues, Chutani said, also surprised Microsoft officials in that there were a number of awards given to faculty members from business or law schools  --  from Harvard and Northwestern Universities and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign -- who proposed projects related to their areas of expertise.

Gates and other Microsoft officials on the Washington trip spoke of concern that the federal government is moving away from supporting high-risk research projects. And another new Microsoft program -- also to be given as a gift, not a grant -- is about to start. In May, the company will announce the first five winners of grants for faculty members who are in the first three years of their academic careers. The winners will receive $200,000 each and access to all of Microsoft's research centers to pursue scholarly work.

To ensure institutional support for the grant recipients, they had to be nominated by their provosts. Chutani said that 107 provosts submitted nominations.

In picking the young faculty members (and recipients of other awards), Chutani said that the hope was that these grants would be "seed money" that would later lead to grants from federal funding agencies. "We want to support high risk speculative work" so that it can reach a point of getting support elsewhere, he said.

Chutani acknowledged that not everyone in academe holds Microsoft in high regard. And he acknowledged that the programs are being pushed because of real corporate concerns that Microsoft has about the state of science in the United States. Gates, in his talk, said that it is becoming more and more difficult for the company to hire the talent it needs.

"We're a business, not a philanthropy," Chutani said. But he noted that the new programs have been designed in ways to "help academics solve specific problems they have" and that the grants "reflect the concerns of the academic community."

In the discussion that Gates participated in at the Library of Congress, his views were consistent with those of many academics. He called federal support for research inadequate, and repeatedly blasted visa regulations that make it more difficult for foreign students and researchers to travel to the United States.

While the other panelists -- a mix of government officials, educators and business leaders -- generally said that they agreed, it was also clear that there is no consensus on the details of these issues.

At one point in the discussion, Phillip J. Bond, undersecretary of commerce for technology, was talking about how much money the Bush administration provides for research. Shirley M. Tilghman, the president of Princeton University, cut him off to ask why the administration was trying to reduce funds provided to universities through DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon unit that supported much of the early work on the Internet.

Bond replied that the administration had to make "some tough choices."

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