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US govt cuts squeeze crucial computer science, shoot country in foot

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If a guy's been doing something for 50 years, you listen

A nuts-and-bolts example of how federal support for advanced computing can help society at large was provided by Warren Washington, an atmospheric scientist who has been with the US National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) for 50 years – and no, that's not a typo.

When he joined NCAR in 1963, climate-research science was in its infancy – if it could be said to have existed in any deeply systematized form at all. To get it off the ground, Washington said, "Government investment has been crucial."

In the early days, NCAR was considered to be a pure-research group, but one that by the 1970s managed to create workable – if nascent – weather simulations and climate simulations.

"Now things have changed a little bit," Washington said. "Clearly society is faced with major questions about how the planet is changing and how we should adapt to it, how we should make our government policies fit with this changing environment."

And in response to these changes, government bodies are asking for more-specific data. "How high is the sea level going to be?," Washington said he's been asked. "And how is Miami going to be affected? And how is Manhatten going to be affected?"

'We're reaching a crisis'

Answering these questions requires better resolution in climate models – even down to the city and county level. "This means that in the future we're going to need an even heavier investment at the federal level," Washington says, "and even possibly at the state level to answer some of these questions."

Unfortunately, the funding to support the research – especially the "blue sky" basic research to which Berman alluded – is drying up as Washington DC continues its meat-axe-not-scalpel sequestration approach to budgetary policy.

"Clearly," Warren Washington said, "I think we're reaching a crisis in a sense, because the acceptance rates of proposals at the National Science Foundation and other agencies is pretty low. It's approaching somewhere around five per cent, so that means people are spending more and more time writing proposals – and not getting funded, actually."

And it's not just the problem of scientists and researchers not being able to obtain funding from the NSF, NIH, NOAA, and what Keyes described as their "dozen sisters", Washington believes. It's the larger question of the US federal government's commitment to science as a whole.

"In order to keep science alive and the newer generations of scientists and engineers and other involved in technology, we need to be making a bigger investment," he said.

It's a matter of priorities: Washington wants to keep alive Keyes' hope for an expanding economy and Berman's hope for support of pure research. "It's just a shame that in some states, they spend more money on prisons than they spend on universities," he said. "I don't think that's the correct priority."

Do know, however, that while you're nose-down in your workaday world – "takin' what they're givin' while you're workin' for a livin'," in the 1982 words of Huey Lewis and the News – Warren Washington is looking out for the future of federal funding for the advancement of pure research into computing technologies.

"I'll keep pushing on this with our lawmakers and policy makers so that we can really get the resources that we really need," said the 50-year veteran of atmospheric research, a man who more than most understands that advanced computing research may actually – not to put too fine a point on it – help save the planet.

Although to take the longer view, the planet will be just fine – it's just our own sweet asses we need to worry about. And having the feds return some of our tax dollars to researchers working on advanced computing would be not only good ass-saving insurance, but an economy booster, as well. ®

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