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NSF & Congress

Hearing Summary: House Basic Research Subcommittee Hears Testimony on NSF Supercomputing Program and New Major Equipment

April 9, 1997

Even before the National Science Board (NSB) formally approved funding for the new Partnership for Advanced Computational Infrastructure (PACI) program at the end of March, the House Science Committee Subcommittee on Basic Research had scheduled a hearing on the topic. The subcommittee's interest was guided in part by Member concerns over the future of existing supercomputing centers in their states, as well as plans for transition from the old program to its new incarnation. As it happened, however, concerns over the Board's procedures in reaching its decision dominated the hearing.

In the first panel, Dr. Neal Lane, Director of NSF, Dr. Richard Zare, Chairman of the NSB, Dr. Paul Young, Senior Advisor to the Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate at NSF, and Dr. Shirley Malcom, Member of the NSB's Executive Committee, provided a detailed overview of the PACI program, beginning with the NSB's decision to rethink the entire supercomputing center concept in 1994, through the development, competition, and eventual Board decision to make two awards in the new PACI program on March 28.

Because the Board had nine nominations still awaiting Senate confirmation, it was unable to achieve a quorum at that meeting. After being presented with a recommendation to fund two PACI projects -- the National Computational Science Alliance (NCSA), led by the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign, and the National Partnership for Advanced Computational Infrastructure (NPACI), led by the University of California, San Diego -- the Executive Committee of the Board decided to approve funding for both partnerships.

Much of the questioning of this panel focused on whether or not the lack of a quorum and the use of the Executive Committee compromised the decision process. Witnesses detailed the legal authority, precedents, and a review process that involved both confirmed Board members and those awaiting confirmation to reassure the Subcommittee that the decision would not have been different had it been postponed.

Members also expressed concerns over the plans for phasing out the supercomputing facilities at Cornell and Pittsburgh. Dr. Young explained how these plans had been developed and how supercomuting users would be accommodated during the transition to the PACI program.

The second panel focused on new facilities for computer networking, upper atmospheric science, and radio astronomy. Witnesses were Dr. Graham Spanier, President, Pennsylvania State University; Dr. Michael Kelley, Cornell University; and Dr. Paul Vanden Bout, Director, National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

Dr. Spanier outlined the Internet II program aimed at developing improved networking connections among research universities and private sector partners. Internet II complements the President's proposal for the Next Generation Internet which would provide $100 million to a consortium of federal agencies to improve computer network connections.

Dr. Kelley testified about plans for the Polar Cap Observatory (PCO) to be built in Resolute Bay, Canada. The PCO can provide information on solar activity as it affects the upper atmosphere and is planned to be completed before the next period of maximum solar activity. Solar flares are known to affect satellites and even earthbound electrical and electronic components.

Dr. Vanden Bout discussed plans for the Millimeter Array (MMA) of radio telescopes that would be located on a high altitude desert in Chile. The MMA would use extensions of well-understood technologies to gain a fuller understanding of stellar, galactic, and planetary origins

See also: Testimony from Dr. Lane, Dr. Young, Dr Zare and Dr. Malcom.