“If we want to out compete, we have to out compute,” witnesses tell Congressional Science Committee

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.