US govt cuts squeeze crucial computer science, shoot country in foot
Budget slashing ruins education, ruins science, ruins HPC, ruins planet
SC13 Analysis The US is shooting itself in the return-on-investment foot by tightening the screws on support for research on advanced computing systems.
That was the message expressed loud and clear by a trio of HPC heavyweights during a "Retrospective on Supercomputing Technologies" session celebrating the 25th anniversary of the SC13 supercomputing conference in Denver, Colorado, on Thursday evening.
David Keyes, a professor of applied mathematics and computational science at Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST) and former director of advanced computing research at the Lawrence Livermore Lab, recalled last year's 20th anniversary celebration of the US Networking Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) group, formed in 1992 to bring together most of the federal agencies that sponsor computing research.
According to Keyes, the ripple effect engendered by information-system research supported by the one-tenth of one per cent of the federal budget invested in the NSF, DOE, NIH, NASA, NIST, NOAA, "and their dozen sisters" has been responsible for about two-thirds of the growth in the US's gross domestic product (GDP) during the 20 years of NITRD's existence.
Not only that, Keyes said, but the federal investment in those agencies supported innovations and inventions with which US corporations "changed our lives," and which corporations used to expand imports "from commercial airplanes to Hollywood movies" – both computer-dependent.
If the industrial economy could have kept up with the technical advances supported by the NITRD group in the past 20 years, which Keyes claimed provided a one thousand–fold increase in aggregate computing power per dollar per decade during its existence, "We could fly from JFK to Narita – a 15-hour trip – in one-twentieth of a second," he said. "If we had the same price-performance [improvement] over those 20 years, the cost of higher eduction in the US would be twenty cents per year – tuition, room, and board."
From Keyes' point of view, the advances in computing over the past two decades have been "an amazingly productive economic engine, and it all can be traced to a very strategic federal investment." But those investments are now stalling.
Fran Berman, a computer science professor at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, and former director of the San Diego Supercomputer Center, said the US federal government's attitude toward investment in computing research has changed over time – and not for the better.
"It's much harder to do 'blue sky' projects," she said, "the kind of high-risk, high-reward stuff that really fuels some of the most interesting innovations."
And the climate in Washington DC that's causing agencies to tighten up their purse strings is not just hard on the researchers whose grants are being affected, it's also hard for the funding folks themselves. "I think it's hard for our colleagues who work in the agencies," she said, knowing both the fiscal and political pressure they are under.
Capitol illing ... The bucks stopped here, in Washington DC
Possibly even more insidious than mere budget cuts is the fact that pure research is more and more being devalued as not having an immediate and quantifiable return on investment.
"I think there seems less understanding that research is unpredictable, that you can have a really good idea and it might not pan out the way you thought it would," Berman said. "That doesn't mean your research failed, it means that you tried something, you learned something, and it set you and the rest of the community up for different ideas."
But don't blame just those nasty politicos. As Walt Kelley's Pogo said, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."
"It seems that the general public expects that if you spend money on a research project, that you're going to get an answer, and that answer will be the right answer," Berman said. "And so, somehow, if you don't get that answer, that research and investment was not a good investment. And that, I think, is challenging for us all."
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. ®