Computing Research Policy Blog

The Computing Research Association (or CRA) has been involved in shaping public policy of relevance to computing research for more than two decades. More recently the CRA Government Affairs program has enhanced its efforts to help the members of the computing research community contribute to the public debate knowledgeably and effectively.

PITAC Issues Computational Science Report

The last report of the most recent incarnation of the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committeenow expired — has been released. Computational Science: Ensuring America’s Competitiveness is the committee’s in-depth look at the state of the federal R&D effort in computational science — an effort, the committee found, that is hobbled by “inadequate and outmoded structures within the Federal government and the academy.”
The committee’s principal finding:

Computational science is now indispensable to the solution of complex problems in every sector, from traditional science and engineering domains to such key areas as national security, public health, and economic innovation. Advances in computing and connectivity make it possible to develop computational models and capture and analyze unprecedented amounts of experimental and observational data to address problems previously deemed intractable or beyond imagination. Yet, despite the great opportunities and needs, universities and the Federal government have not effectively recognized the strategic significance of computational science in either their organizational structures or their research and educational planning. These inadequacies compromise U.S. scientific leadership, economic competitiveness, and national security.

In order to address the inadequacies, the committee made two principal recommendations: universities and the Federal government need to make “fundamental, structural changes” to remove the boundaries that inhibit multidisciplinary science; and the community (led by the National Academies) must develop and maintain a “multi-decade roadmap for computational science and the fields that require it.”
The committee also found that the “computational science ecosystem” is unbalanced, especially in the area of research in enabling software and applications. “[T]he imbalance forces researchers to build atop inadequate and crumbling foundations rather than on a modern, high-quality software base. The result is greatly diminished productivity for both researchers and computing systems.” The committee recommends building an interconnected environment of software sustainability centers — whose charge is “to harden, document, support, and maintain vital computational science software whose useful lifetime may be measured in decades” — national data and software repositories, and national high-end computing centers that are “readily accessible and available to researchers with the most demanding computing requirements.”
Finally, the committee recommends “long-term, balanced R&D investments in software, hardware, data, networking, and human resources.” The committee finds the current federal effort is “inadequately investing in robust, easy-to-use software, an excessive focus on peak hardware performance, limited investments in architectures well matched to computational science needs, and inadequate support for data infrastructure.” The Federal government must rebalance the computational science R&D portfolio to invest in a new generation of software that can reduce the “complexity and time to solution” and create accurate models and simulations; design new hardware architectures “that can deliver larger fractions of peak hardware performance on key applications”; and, focus on sensor- and data-intensive applications.

The universality of computational science is its intellectual strength. It is also its political weakness. Because all research domains benefit from computational science but none is solely defined by it, the discipline has historically lacked the cohesive, well-organized community of advocates found in other disciplines. As a result, the United States risks losing its leadership and opportunities to more nimble international competitors. We are now at a pivotal point, with generation-long consequences for scientific leadership, economic competitiveness, and national security if we fail to act with vision and commitment. We must undertake a new, large-scale, long-term partnership among government, academia, and industry to ensure that the United States possesses the computational science expertise and resources to assure continuing leadership, prosperity, and security in the 21st century.

The report was produced by the PITAC Subcommittee on Computational Science, which was chaired by Dan Reed, Vice-Chancellor and CIO of UNC, Director of the Institute for Renaissance Computing, and incoming chair of CRA. The report is here (pdf).