August 2005
The Coming Era of Low Power, High-Performance Computing — Trends, Promises, and Challenges
Opinion Editorial
Fran Berman Director, San Diego Supercomputer Center; HPC Endowed Chair, UC San Diego

The Gretzky Rule and Competitiveness in Science and Engineering Research

For most academics, competitiveness is measured by quality of results and track record through publications, and the most highly valued research and researchers are candidates for community prizes — the Fields Medal (mathematics), the Turing Award (computer science), the Pulitzer Prize (literature), and of course, the Nobel Prize (various disciplines). The ultimate goal of competitiveness is leadership, and to achieve the kind of leadership recognized by community prizes, researchers must devote many years in an environment that supports creativity, innovation, deep thinking, and does not penalize the many false starts, wrong turns, and other building blocks that lead to our best and most important results.

To create an environment in which U.S. scientists and engineers are competitive involves developing an environment where the best, the brightest, and the most creative can work, and over the long periods of time that are required for fundamental advances. For many of today’s scientists and engineers, infrastructure and professional support is decreasing in the university environment, and there is increasing difficulty in getting funded by federal agencies (currently the “hit rate” for computer science and engineering proposals at the NSF is 20% or less, i.e. only one in every five proposals is funded). In addition, increasing risk aversion in the funding environment penalizes against bold, long-term, or unusual approaches.

Optimizing for competitiveness in science and engineering research mandates a different approach than the HPC “arms race” to the provision of high performance computational and data management infrastructure as well. Rather than optimizing for Top500 ranking, enabling HPC platforms for the researchers who need them must optimize for the support of real science and engineering applications. Data-intensive HPC applications, latency tolerant grid-friendly applications, latency-intolerant “traditional HPC” applications, etc. require a diverse set of capable and high-capacity HPC architectures to best support the diverse needs of the broad academic community. One size (architecture or site) does not fit all here. At the same time, we can’t currently afford 100’s or perhaps even 10’s of these facilities — economies of scale must be applied to optimize for adequate capacities and capabilities, as well as the costs of support, maintenance, and user service and training required to best leverage national-scale HPC resources for the broad community.

So how can we become more competitive in U.S. science and engineering research? Our research and education portfolio would benefit from the same approach we use to balance our personal investments. We should be investing in a strategic balance of short-term, long-term, high-risk, and low-risk endeavors. We should acknowledge that infrastructure enables new discovery but also incurs cost. If the “puck” is leadership through a greater U.S. percentage of top prizes and high-impact results, we need to focus our resources on developing an environment where this can happen, and begin skating in that direction.

Competitiveness in Sustaining a Science and Engineering Workforce — A Perfect Storm Looming

The outsourcing of research, education, service, and innovation is an increasing focus for discussion in the public and private sector. According to Science Resource Statistics,2 as of 2003, 22% of professional scientists and engineers did not have a B.A. or B.S. and only 9% held Ph.D.s and professional degrees. The number of doctorates awarded have been decreasing in science and engineering since 1998,3 and despite the fact that our kids are increasingly technology-savvy, as a society, our understanding of science and engineering is seriously limited. The National Science Board’s 2004 Science and Engineering Indicators report states “Many people do not seem to have a firm understanding of basic scientific facts and concepts.”4

For many of us in academia, the increasing competitiveness of our colleagues in Europe and Asia through committed funding programs and resources, the drop in support in the U.S. for research, education, and information infrastructure, and the increased outsourcing of technology innovation and service outside of the U.S. are creating a “perfect storm” that will batter U.S. leadership and competitiveness not just now, but over the next generation. Investment in maintaining and sustaining a competitive U.S. workforce in science, engineering, and technology is a long-term investment. It will require planning, commitment, and resources for our educational system, expansion of our training environments, and evolution of our cultural perceptions to recognize the critical role science and engineering play in driving key societal challenges such as better health, improved safety, a sustainable environment, etc.

If we have a concrete idea of where we want the puck to be, it’s much easier to skate there. Setting strategic priorities and concrete goals, commitment to providing the leadership, perseverance, and resources to meet those goals, and responsibly estimating the costs and the timeframes required to reach them are key to competitiveness and leadership. This is not rocket science, but without a more thoughtful and strategic approach, advances and new discoveries in rocket science and other disciplines will be much more difficult to achieve.

From “On Perfect Storms, Competitiveness, and the ‘Gretzky Rule’” — HPCWire, Volume 14, Issue 30, July 29, 2005. Reprinted by permission of Tabor Communications, Inc.

Pages: 1 2

Reference this article
Berman, F. "On Perfect Storms, Competitiveness, and the “Gretzky Rule”," CTWatch Quarterly, Volume 1, Number 3, August 2005. http://www.ctwatch.org/quarterly/articles/2005/08/on-perfect-storms-competitiveness-and-the-gretzky-rule/

Any opinions expressed on this site belong to their respective authors and are not necessarily shared by the sponsoring institutions or the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Any trademarks or trade names, registered or otherwise, that appear on this site are the property of their respective owners and, unless noted, do not represent endorsement by the editors, publishers, sponsoring institutions, the National Science Foundation, or any other member of the CTWatch team.

No guarantee is granted by CTWatch that information appearing in articles published by the Quarterly or appearing in the Blog is complete or accurate. Information on this site is not intended for commercial purposes.