U.S. dominates supercomputing, but for how much longer?

Bill advances amid concerns about research funding

Supercomputing efforts in the United States could decline if more money isn't pumped into research, some legislators and members of the research and development community warned last month.

House members want to re-energize federal supercomputing activities, but some researchers have criticized lawmakers for being unwilling to open the federal faucets to authorize additional money.

The criticism comes as the Energy Department's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has acquired the world's fastest supercomputer.

The House passed a bill last month to expand supercomputing activities, but the Senate must still pass the measure before it can become a law. The High-Performance Computing Revitalization Act of 2005 amends the High-Performance Computing Act of 1991.

The bill requires the National Science Foundation and DOE to guarantee that U.S. researchers and engineers have access to supercomputers. It also puts the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in charge of coordinating all federal supercomputing efforts.

The new bill's requirements apply to all information technology research and development programs in agencies under the House Science Committee's jurisdiction, including NSF, NASA, DOE and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

House Science Committee Chairman Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) said the new bill would strengthen the nation's global position in supercomputing. "When we look back, we see a lot of people following closely behind," Boehlert said.

The proposed DOE budget for fiscal 2006 ignores supercomputing. Last year, the agency's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the Office of Science invested millions of dollars in high-end computing and simulation. But the 2006 proposal would reduce NNSA's Advanced Simulation and Computing Program to $660.8 million, down more than 5 percent from $696.7 million in fiscal 2005.

The Office of Science's Advanced Scientific Computing Research program would lose more than 11 percent, dropping from $233 million in fiscal 2005 to $207 million.

Some critics of the proposed reductions argue that cuts in supercomputing spending in one agency disrupt the U.S. supercomputing ecosystem.

Dan Reed, former director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and now vice chancellor of IT and chief information officer for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, cautioned that funding for supercomputing is precarious governmentwide. More cuts endanger the supercomputing life cycle, from research and development to workforce education and sustained operations, he said.

A supercomputing agenda

A bill to revitalize federal supercomputing has passed the House, where leaders are concerned that the United States may lose its international dominance in the field. At the moment, the Energy Department and NASA own the world's fastest supercomputers, but other countries are close behind.

The House bill calls for:

  • Conducting long-term basic and applied research on high-performance computing.
  • Guaranteeing U.S. researchers access to the world's most advanced supercomputers.
  • Expanding undergraduate and graduate education in disciplines such as software engineering, computer and network security, and computational science.
  • — Aliya Sternstein

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