PITAC Focuses on Computational Science

The President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee met “virtually” today to hear an update on the efforts of the panel’s subcommittee on computational science. Dan Reed, who does just about everything at the University of North Carolina (Chancellor’s Eminient Professor, Vice-Chancellor for IT and CIO, and Director of the Renaissance Computing Institute — not to mention a current CRA board member) chairs the subcommittee and led the discussion of the subcommittee’s efforts. His slides (pdf) provide a pretty good summary of his talk. (Check slide 5 for a pic of Dan — back row, beneath the seal, with the beard.)
The Subcommittee has been tasked with figuring out:

  • 1. How well is the federal government targeting the right research areas in computational science and are current agency priorities appropriate?
  • 2. How well is federal funding for computational science balanced between short and long-term research, and low and high-risk research? Which areas of research have the greatest promise?
  • 3. How well is funding balanced between the underlying techniques of computational science vs. applications in the science and engineering domains? Which areas have the greatest promise?
  • 4. How well is computational science training and research integrated into the scientific domains that rely on computational science?
  • 5. How effectively do federal agencies coordinate?
  • 6. How has the federal investment kept up with the changing technology?
  • 7. What barriers hinder realizing the highest potential of computational science?
    Dan’s presentation has more detail, but in short, the subcommittee has made some progress towards answering those questions and gotten some good input already from the community (but is still looking for more). It looks like the final report will emphasize how crucial computing has become to the progress of science, as well as to U.S. competitiveness and national security. The subcommittee makes the point that computing has become the third component of scientific discovery, complementing theory and experiment, and that it’s so integral that its limitations constrain scientific discovery.
    Additionally, the subcommittee notes that complex multidisciplinary problems, from public policy through national security to scientific discovery and economic competitiveness, have emerged as new drivers of computational science.
    One nugget I found especially interesting from the presentation was an example of both the economic benefit and the health and safety benefit that will arise from more capable modeling enabled by advanced computing. The subcommittee noted that 40 percent of the $10 trillion U.S. economy is impacted by climate and weather. As one example of this, the subcommittee cited the hurricane warnings provided by the National Hurricane Center and the cost of the evacuations that often result. According to the subcommittee, there is $1 million in economic loss for each mile of coastline evacuated. With the current models, the U.S. now “over warns” by a factor of 3, with the average “over-warning” for a hurricane resulting in 200 miles of evacuations — or $200 million in unnecessary loss per event. Improved modeling (better algorithms, better software, more capable hardware, etc) would improve the accuracy of forecasts, saving lives and resources. As someone tasked with making “the case for IT R&D” to Hill and Administration policymakers, I can tell you that these sort of examples really resonate.
    The presentation has the full scoop, so I encourage you to read it and, even better, provide your input to the subcommittee. Dan’s contact information is in the presentation, or I’d be happy to forward input to the subcommittee as well. Additionally, the subcommittee will hold a “town hall” meeting at next week’s Supercomputing 2004 conference in Pittsburgh. So if you’re headed to the conference, plan on making it to the November 10th BOF session they’ve scheduled.
    The subcommittee will then spend November and December gathering further input and drafting the report. They’ll present a draft at a January 2005 PITAC meeting, with the final draft hopefully approved by the full committee in March 2005.
    With the current Administration now certainly in place for the next four years, the subcommittee’s report has the potential to be fairly influential in shaping federal support for computational science over the long term, so it’s definitely worth contributing to the effort.

  • PITAC Focuses on Computational Science