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Institute for Bioengineering, Biotechnology and Quantitative Biomedical Research (QB3)

The History of CITRIS: A Campaign to Re-engineer Engineering

The idea for the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society, or CITRIS, really began more than a year ago. Like most grand ideas, it evolved in response to several simultaneous changes taking place in the world and in the field of engineering, at UC Berkeley and elsewhere.

UC Berkeley's Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Sciences (EECS) has been holding a get-together every Friday afternoon for quite a while. Organized at the suggestion of professor David Patterson, the weekly gathering is a time for faculty to come together at the end of the week to "think great thoughts" and ponder the grand challenges of research and instruction that keep faculty working at an institution like UC Berkeley rather than heading off to a start-up or a dot-com.

At a gathering in September 1999, during a discussion of what is next for computer sciences and electrical engineering, the faculty agreed that the real opportunities for impact in research lay not in computer science for its own sake, but in its application to other areas in society and in industry. After all, the various disciplines associated with information technology had focused their efforts largely on developing and promoting their own fields for more than half a century, and especially over the past 25 years. It seemed to these faculty members that it was about time researchers in the field began a concerted effort to apply their tools and techniques to grand-challenge problems that cross the boundaries between disciplines.

An obvious first area of application is bioengineering and bioinformatics. "Wouldn't it be great if Berkeley was known for developing the 'plumbing of bioinformatics'?" suggested professor Eric Brewer. "What if we were to develop the algorithms, software tools, and techniques needed to form the platform upon which our colleagues in the biosciences could perform the research needed to mine the full potential of the human genome project?" Other areas of application were also proposed and discussed, but most important was the realization among the faculty that this idea was an important one - that the idea of applying information technology broadly to other engineering disciplines and in areas well beyond engineering, including the humanities, social sciences and the arts, was a compelling one. Something important had been identified in this discussion - the seed of an important idea had been sown, and it needed to be pursued further.

Quite independently, professor Paul Gray, then dean of engineering at UC Berkeley, planned an off-site workshop for the heads of the departments in the college in early February 2000 to discuss and plan the future of UC Berkeley's College of Engineering. How should the college tackle some of the key challenges facing engineering in the years to come, such as growth, distance education and lifelong learning, and the balance among the various engineering disciplines? One topic that emerged in preparing for the workshop was the fact that engineering, as a discipline, has progressed with an organizational structure that has been largely unchanged for more than half a century now - the central disciplines of civil, mechanical, electrical, industrial and materials engineering have existed separately for a long time. In the light of the rapid progress in the application of information technology and computing to all fields related to science and engineering, Gray's task force proposed that it was time to revisit these disciplines and readdress the fundamental question: what does it really mean to be an engineer in today's world? What are the fundamental skills and understanding that make someone a successful engineer today?

Information technology runs through all the disciplines of engineering - civil engineers are building complex information systems, mechanical engineers are at work designing new micromachines no bigger that a match head, electrical engineers are designing complex optical processors, and industrial engineers are developing new business systems. Adib Kanafani, chair of UC Berkeley's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, summarized the challenge: "We need to re-engineer engineering in the context of today's world." The ideas that emerged from this workshop have led college of Engineering administrators and faculty to contemplate an entirely new approach to undergraduate engineering education, as well as how to organize cross-disciplinary engineering research. While the college continues to focus on engineering fundamentals, it can also embrace this new approach reflecting the interdisciplinary nature of engineering as it is often practiced today. In fact, an increasing number of cross-disciplinary research programs have emerged in the college over the years. In many ways, this thinking was the clear recognition of what was already an emerging trend and the need to embrace it even further.

On March 15, 2000, EECS held its annual meeting of the Industrial Advisory Board (IAB), comprised of CEOs and chief technologists from a number of major corporations and research laboratories throughout the world. This year, a dozen members of the board attended the meeting and professor Richard Newton, then chair of EECS, invited another dozen faculty to participate in the day. Rather than adhere to the usual set of presentations and discussions, Newton decided to ask the IAB to help the department with two pressing issues: should UC Berkeley EECS step up even further to the cross-disciplinary research opportunity supported so strongly in the Friday afternoon discussions, and how should the department tackle the growing need for lifelong and distance learning, both to support alumni as well as to make a UC Berkeley engineering education available to many more Californians?

The meeting was organized as two half-day brainstorming and discussion sessions, with breakout groups of faculty and advisors hard at work for more than two hours on each topic. When the group broke for the day, the recommendations were clear: cross-disciplinary research offered the potential for high-impact programs in the department, both in research as well as instruction - it was a unique and important opportunity that should not be missed. Even more exciting to the group was the particular research emphasis identified by the group. Rather than simply tackling the tough but obvious research problems related to the Internet or to new technologies in their own right, to organize and focus such an interdisciplinary effort, the group recommended the research tackle tough social problems as its main emphasis. That is, UC Berkeley should consider using problems that, if solved, would have a clear role in improving the quality of people's lives - on a global scale.

"Tackle the grand-challenge social problems of today. Create the architectures, the vision, and the fundamental technologies. Build prototype solutions and prove the value and importance of your work. Then industry will find a way to fill in the gaps and deliver the commercial versions of the technology," was the recommendation from the group. "Involve sociologists and cognitive scientists; involve experts on policy and privacy issues; involve the likely users of the technology; make sure the work that you do really does lead to a better world and not just a more complex and more technically brittle one." How obvious! What a great idea! If universities like UC Berkeley do not work on such important problems, then who will? Once these recommendations were circulated to the faculty at large, the level of excitement in departmental e-mail exchanges increased immediately. "But how can we do it? Where will we get the resources to tackle such problems - they will require a very large scale of investment if we are to have any chance of solving them."

It was around this time that the department became aware of Gov. Gray Davis's proposal for a new set of institutes - the California Institutes for Science and Innovation (CISI) program - to be implemented on or near University of California campuses. The CISI program represents a bold and exciting vision, intended to renew the foundations of excellence in this world-renowned university system and to leverage the university's resources even further to enhance the California economy. Perhaps this program would provide the opportunity to launch UC Berkeley's new agenda. As soon as the request for proposals was released, professors Gray and Newton asked professor James Demmel of EECS to solicit interest from the faculty and to investigate the possibility of proposing a cross-disciplinary research institute to tackle tough social problems using an information technology-centered approach. Demmel sent e-mail to the faculty in the College of Engineering at Berkeley, to other faculty across the UC Berkeley campus, and to groups at UC Santa Cruz and UC Davis as well. He was overwhelmed by the response. More than 170 faculty, from throughout the campus and from Davis and Santa Cruz, replied enthusiastically that they wanted to contribute to this important idea. For many, finding good reason to work with world-class faculty and students in other areas was the key attraction - the cross-disciplinary aspect of the work - while, for others, the chance to work on grand-challenge social problems, where the emphasis was on helping society as a whole, was the main attraction. But no matter what the motivation, Demmel received resounding support for the idea and the proposal for a Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society was born.


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