President Obama released his annual budget request on Monday February 2nd (interesting note: Fiscal Year 2016 is the first time his administration released the budget on time). As we have done in years past, the CRA Policy Blog will be doing a series of posts on the assorted budget requests for key science agencies, particularly highlighting the ones that are of importance to the computing community. Check back for more agencies.

First up is the Department of Energy (DOE). The two key parts of DOE for the computing community are the Office of Science (SC), home of most of the agency’s basic research support, and ARPA-E. For SC, the office would see a very healthy increase of 5.4 percent from FY15 to FY16 (going from $5.07B to $5.34B). Seeing as the agency has limped through the Sequestration era with up-and-down budgets, this request is very good.

Perhaps most important for computing researchers is the Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR) program. ASCR would see a huge increase in funding, going up by 14.8 percent (or $541M in FY15 to $621M in FY16). Most of the justification for this increase (~$87M) is set aside for the exascale computing initiative. In fact, Secretary of Energy Ernie Moniz said that exascale computing, both hardware and software, is a “top priority across the Office of Science.” Some other details from ASCR’s request are that their user facilities are operating, “optimally and with >90% availability;” and “deployment of 10-40 petaflop upgrade at NERSC and continued preparation for 75-200 petaflop upgrades at the Leadership Computing Facilities” continue. Also, the Computational Science Graduate Fellowship is restored at $10M to, “fully fund a new cohort.” (You’ll recall we joined with the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) to call on Congress to preserve the CS Grad Fellowship program.)

Digging a little deeper, the majority of the ASCR increase — $77.5M — is provided for the High Performance Computing and Networking Facilities (HPCF) subaccount. The Mathematical, Computational, and Computer Sciences Research subaccount would receive a more modest increase of $2.5M.

As for ARPA-E (or Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy), it would see the same increase the President requested last year: 16.1 percent (or $280M in FY15 to $325M in FY16). The agency, “advances high-potential, high-impact energy technologies that are too early for private-sector investment.” This increase has become something of a tradition for ARPA-E, where the White House recommends a significant increase but Congress decides to flat fund the agency. There are few indications that this dynamic will change with this budget.

The big question now is will Congress pass this request? While it is true that support for computing research is widespread and bipartisan, it is still unlikely that this budget will breeze through the legislative process. For starters, throughout his request, the President has rejected funding levels called for by the budget deal that brought us sequestration, or the mandatory, across-the-board budget cuts, that are still US law. In rolling back sequestration, Obama is making an argument that the country is coming out of the recession and that these cuts need to be replaced with something more targeted. It’s unlikely that the Republican-controlled Congress shares that view. In addition to the sequestration rollback, it’s likely that congressional Republicans will have a different set of priorities within the Dept of Energy budget about things like climate change, sustainable energy, and clean coal programs, and those will require adjustments throughout the proposed budget to accommodate. So chances are very good that the final FY16 budget for DOE will look very little like the President’s request. But there appears to be strong bipartisan support for DOE computing programs (see, for example, last week’s hearing), and ASCR has recently fared well even when other aspects of the Office of Science budget have been flat-funded (or worse). So perhaps a little cautious optimism is warranted.

We’ll be watching this budget, and the other science agencies’ budgets, as they progress through Congress this year. Check back for more updates.

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On Wednesday January 28th, the Energy Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee held a hearing on, “Supercomputing and American Technology Leadership.” The witnesses that were called, who spanned the public and private sectors in high performance computing (HPC), gave the simple message that in order to out compete other nations, America needs to out compute them. And that calls for sustained funding for supercomputing resources and research.

The hearing was opened by Subcommittee Chairman Randy Weber (R-TX), who, in his opening statement, said that, “it is our job in Congress to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely, on innovative research that is in the national interest, and provides the best chance for broad impact and long-term success. The basic research conducted within the ASCR program (the Department of Energy’s Advanced Scientific Computing and Research program) clearly meets this requirement.” He elaborated by saying, “high performance computing can lead to scientific discoveries, economic growth, and will maintain America’s leadership in science and technology.” Science Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), in her own opening statement, echoed much the same points, saying, “public policies play a critical role in supporting the advancement of high performance computing, and in enabling our society and economy to directly benefit from this capability.” She pointed out that, “the U.S. currently hosts more than 45% of the 500 fastest supercomputers in the world,” and that, “as we enter the world of ‘big data’, where thousands of devices all around us are generating millions of bytes of data to be analyzed, high performance computing is needed not just by scientists and government researchers, but by many civic and commercial enterprises as well.”

The panel of witnesses was a venerable who’s-who of high performance computing and science policy. They included Norman Augustine, board member of the Bipartisan Policy Center and an “old sage” of the science policy community (long time readers of this blog will recognize him as the co-chair of the National Academies study “Rising Above the Gathering Storm”); Roscoe Giles, Chairman of the DOE Advanced Scientific Computing Advisory Committee, who spoke on what is happening at ASCR; Dave Turek, Vice President, Technical Computing, at IBM, who gave the industry perspective for HPC and insight into the long-term challenges the field is facing; and James Crowley, Executive Director of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), who gave the perspective from the scientific community. You can read their testimony in full on the House Science Committee website.

The witnesses agreed that America needs to increase their investment in supercomputing. In response to a question from Ranking Member Johnson about how he would make the case to lawmakers to increase funding for research, Mr. Augustine said that in order to compete with other countries, we have to be faster at applying research to the economy and the best way to do that is through improved computing. Vice-chairman Dan Newhouse (R-WA) asked what Congress could do to remove barriers to allow the DOE National Laboratories to be able to better transfer research to industries; Mr. Augustine pointed out that much of industry doesn’t know what’s going on at the national labs and that he has found the best way to transfer knowledge is to move people. While Mr. Augustine understood the need to have tight conflict of interest laws, encouraging more movement of scientists between labs and industry would help speed up the transfer of research. Finally, a question from Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) on what the next step beyond the use of silicon in computers could be; Mr. Turek pointed out that we have reached the limits of silicon and there is no single solution to this problem. The only option is more research to find more options. Dr. Giles, in response to Rep. Massie’s question, also pointed out that ASCR, and the Department of Energy as a whole, is in an excellent position tackle this problem, because it is physics based and DOE’s research portfolio is predominantly physics research.

The hearing was quite informative and completely free of political rancor. All the Representatives present asked insightful questions, and they walked away with a greater understanding of the challenges and promises of high performance computing. Hopefully this will translate into some good legislation down the road from the Science Committee.

On Tuesday January 27th, the Research and Technology Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, & Technology Committee held it’s first hearing of the 114th Congress. The topic was expanding cyber threats and cybersecurity, and the subcommittee heard from experts from both the private sector and government agencies. Assistant Director of CISE, Jim Kurose, testifying for the first time in his new position, told the subcommittee that sustained investment in basic research is need to combat these threats and that it is a socio-technological issue that requires involvement from behavioral researchers as well.

Subcommittee Chairwoman Barbara Comstock (R-VA) opened the hearing making the point that, “advances in technology and the growing nature of every individual’s online presence means cybersecurity needs to become an essential part of our vernacular.” Further elaborating on the threats the country is dealing with, she went on:

Instances of harmful cyber-attacks are reported regularly and expose the very real threats growing in this area. Financial information, medical records, and personal data maintained on computer systems by individuals and organizations continue to be vulnerable. Cyber-attacks on companies like Sony or Target and the U.S. Central Command will not go away and we have to constantly adapt and intercept and stop these threats before they happen and understand where and how they are happening and stay ever vigilant. Utilizing targeted emails, spam, malware, bots and other tools, cyber criminals, “hacktivists” and nation states are attempting to access information technology systems all the time. The defense of these systems relies on professionals who can react to threats and proactively prepare those systems for attack. (Citation)

Ranking Member Daniel Lipinski (D-IL), in his own opening statement, agreed with the chairwoman, saying that, “cybercrimes are ever-increasing. The threats are not only growing in number, but in the level of sophistication.” There was no dissenting opinions from any members of the subcommittee, Democrat or Republican, that cyber threats are real or that the country needs to do more to understand and combat them.

The witnesses for the hearing represented the cybersecurity community quite well. In addition to Dr. Kurose, there was Cheri McGuire , Vice President, Global Government Affairs & Cybersecurity Policy, Symantec Corporation, who shared the insights her company has from their customers and global security network; Charles Romine, Director, Information Technology Laboratory, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which is the lead agency within the Federal Government in creating standards and distributing best practices throughout the cybersecurity community; Eric A. Fischer, Senior Specialist in Science and Technology, Congressional Research Service, who spoken about the long term challenges and short term needs of the cybersecurity, as well as the Federal role in the field; and Dean Garfield, President and CEO, Information Technology Industry Council, who provided the IT industry perspective of what is going within the industry and how Congress can help. You can read their individual testimony on the Science Committee website.

To sum up, all the witnesses agreed that what was most needed is a sustained investment in basic research for cybersecurity, as well as research into how people interact/use cybersecurity technology. As Dr. Kurose put it, any solutions will be “socio-technical” ones; behavioral research is needed just as much as the physical science research. As well, more interactions between Federal agencies, particularly NIST, and industry is needed in order to get the latest information on threats and best practices. This was brought up, not so much because there is bad or no interaction now (many witnesses stated the opposite; NIST was highly praised by both witnesses and members of the subcommittee) but that the threats change so quickly, necessitating close communication.

Many of the questions asked by committee members showed an interest and a realization of the challenges in cybersecurity. Chairwoman Comstock asked all the witnesses on how Congress should engage their constituents on this matter; the general response being that everyday people need to take this issue seriously and use the security tools that are available. Ranking Member Lipinski asked Mr. Garfield of the IT Industry Council if there is anything different that should be done within the Federal government R&D portfolio; the response was nothing new needs to be done but adequate funding is needed. Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) asked about the status of research to get “beyond the password;” Mr. Garfield pointed out that many new security features and technology is already being deployed into the marketplace. There were even questions about how threats to personal information, such as fraudulent credit card usage, are tracked; this certainly demonstrated the everyday concerns for regular people that can dominate this discussion.

All in all, it was a very informative hearing. One gets the sense that the members of Congress walked away with a good picture of the threats and what is being done about it. And aside from a few off-topic political questions, there was no grandstanding or disagreement (something that is becoming rarer on the committee, sad to say). Hopefully this augurs well for the coming year and this topic specifically.

Photo by CERDEC