Aaron Sterling’s recent post about ICS noted how well-funded theoretical computer science appears to be in China*, and contrasted the “malaise” toward theory in the US to the high regard in which theory seems to be held in China. (Being at an institution that, as a whole, does not seem to value theory certainly makes me sympathize with Aaron’s remarks. Having said that, I especially enjoyed the third comment on his post. [Go ahead and read it, I’ll wait.] Not that I entirely agree with it — I just found it amusing.)
That post and the ensuing discussion raise the larger question: what is the “right” level of funding for theoretical computer science research? More broadly, how would one go about determining how much money “should” be allocated to any of the different sub-areas of CS? Yes, theory is important. But surely other areas of CS are important, too? (Maybe one or two areas are even more important?) We are used to grabbing as much money as we can for theory — both because theory has been historically underfunded (and under-appreciated?) and also because that’s the way the game is played by all academics — but consider this question: say you were in charge of allocating NSF’s budget for computer science research. How would you determine the “right” allocation? Of course, the question only becomes more complicated when you consider the allocation of funds across all the sciences.
I don’t have any immediate answers to these questions. I just find it interesting that, with all the (past) focus on increasing funding for theory (e.g., theorymatters.org, which hasn’t been active in a while), these questions haven’t been discussed. It’s easy to say “theory should be given more funding”, but harder to answer the question “in what areas should funding decrease in order for that to happen?”.
(*As an aside, I suspect that the total level of theory funding in the US is orders of magnitude more than the total level of theory funding in China. Tsinghua University has a high concentration of top-notch theorists, but how many theorists are there in all of China compared with all of the US?)