Study: U.S. losing ground in computer-simulation technology

A government study concludes that, as high-powered computer simulation becomes more important and more common, the United States needs to devote additional resources to advancing the state of the science and preparing researchers to use it.

High-powered computer simulations, once the province of a handful of supercomputers, have become available to scientists around the world on a variety of platforms, but a government-sponsored study found that our universities are not preparing students with the skills to adequately use these rapidly evolving resources.

The United States, a world leader in the development of architectures and algorithms for simulations, is losing this lead as the technology becomes ubiquitous.

The world of computer simulation has become flat, allowing anyone access to the computing power to do advanced modeling and simulation from anywhere, according to the report, titled "International Assessment of Research and Development in Simulation-Based Engineering and Science."

“It is therefore critical that the U.S. exploit new computer architectures, especially those developed here, before those architectures become ubiquitous,” said Sharon Glotzer, professor of chemical engineering at the University of Michigan and a leader of the team doing the report.

The study was conducted by a team of university researchers for the World Technology Evaluation Center. It was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Defense and Energy departments, NASA and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Computer modeling and simulation have become increasingly important tools for science and engineering, letting engineers and researchers conveniently explore actions and reactions that often are too large, small, complex, rare or dangerous to observe directly in the real world. They can be used to predict the behavior of a tsunami or the spread of a new strain of flu, and help refine surgical procedures. Modeling has been used for decades to help predict the weather and the world’s climate, design buildings and bridges and to develop the materials they are built from. Simulations play a critical part of maintaining our nuclear arsenal without actually testing the weapons.

The most advanced platforms for simulations require programming skills that too few U.S. researchers possess, the NSF said in announcing the study. At the same time, affordable computers and national programs outside of this country are eroding U.S. competitiveness in this area.

“Because computer-chip speeds aren’t increasing, hundreds and thousands of chips are being ganged together, each one with many processors,” said Phillip Westmoreland, director of NSF’s combustion, fire and plasma systems program. “New ways of programming are necessary.”

The report recommends three broad avenues for maintaining the nation’s lead in simulation-based science and engineering:

  • Create industry-driven partnerships with universities and DOE’s national laboratories, home to some of the world’s most advanced supercomputers.
  • Support long-term development of simulation-based engineering and science as a discipline and as a tool in other disciplines.
  • Improve the education of the next generation of researchers in high-performance computing.
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