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NSF & Congress


Dr. Richard Zare
National Science Board

Before the House Science Committee
Subcommittee on Basic Research
April 9, 1997

Chairman Schiff and members of the Subcommittee, I appreciate the opportunity to testify before you this afternoon on the National Science Foundation's Partnerships for Advanced Computational Infrastructure Program, known as PACI. I am Dr. Richard Zare, Chairman of the National Science Board.

My testimony today will focus on the National Science Board's vision for future support of high-end computational and networking infrastructure. I also would like to convey to you some of the reasons behind the recent changes in NSF's support for supercomputing -- changes that eventually led to the creation of today's PACI program.

As you know, the National Science Board -- along with acting as a national science policy body -- also approves National Science Foundation policies, budget proposals, new programs, and major multimillion-dollar awards. The Board generally oversees the fiscal and management operations of NSF as a whole. We work very hard to make sure that all of the Foundation's policies, systems, programs, and awards are of the highest quality, incorporate our best thinking, and reflect the perspectives of the communities we represent.

On March 28th, the National Science Board approved the selection of two new awardees for the PACI program and the phase out awards for two existing supercomputer centers. This decision marks a turning point for the nation's computing infrastructure and is the result of a transformation in the science of high-speed computation and networking in the United States that has occurred in the past decade -- a transformation brought about in part by huge advances in networking and in the use of massively-parallel computer architectures.

Think back to the early 1980's when the NSF first began supporting supercomputer infrastructure. At that time, there was no such thing as the Internet and the then-state-of-the-art supercomputers could accomplish less than today's desktop workstations. Scientists and engineers desiring access to the most powerful computers had to travel to one of a few special centers in order to perform their experiments on supercomputers.

Today we are faced with a new reality in supercomputing: a reality where larger, more isolated machines are rapidly giving way to smaller, more powerful and more portable machines, linked together through ever higher-speed connections. In this new reality, we can now access more information at greater speeds and with greater facility than was previously imaginable. As these advances in computing and communications coalesce, we are just beginning to see their full potential for promoting progress in science and engineering and for driving economic growth and societal gain.

There is no question that the work of the original NSF supercomputer centers contributed to the creation of these enormous benefits. From the enabling of the Internet, to advances in computational technology that have virtually created new fields of science overnight, the pioneering supercomputing work supported by NSF made possible a revolution in the field of high-performance computing and communications that helped stimulate the dawn of the information age.

The term "information age" however probably does not do justice to the possibilities of this new, emerging era. We live in an age of "knowledge and distributed intelligence," in which knowledge is available to anyone, located anywhere, at any time; and in which power, information, and control are moving from centralized systems to individuals.

In this age of "knowledge and distributed intelligence," we are confronted with a rapidly shifting world of computer science and engineering that promises tremendous future benefits for how we learn, how we do research, how we share information, and how we communicate. Faced with such a prospect, we must have the courage to make some difficult choices to stop supporting good projects to enable us to support others that promise to be yet better.

That is why the National Science Board requested in October of 1994 that NSF come up with a plan for supercomputing designed to take advantage of the new distributed environment in information science and technology. The Board also felt strongly that prudent strategic planning required that we periodically review the NSF portfolio of investments to make room for the most innovative and pathbreaking work. To do less would mean that the Board would fail to meet its commitment to excellence.

I am pleased to say that the new PACI program -- with its emphasis on innovative partnerships made possible by breakthroughs in high-speed networking and advanced computer architecture -- is consistent with the Board's vision of the future in information science and technology.

The new PACI program is a cutting-edge concept, faithful to the priorities and goals of the National Science Foundation: it will keep the United States ahead in all fields of science and engineering while also pushing the technological advances that will fuel economic growth. It will also allow students and scientists at all levels to enjoy a vast resource for education and training through the multitude of new participating PACI institutions. Partnerships are the core of this program; they increase opportunities for more people to use these resources and to push the frontiers of knowledge.

In closing, let me state that the National Science Board is very excited about the new directions of the PACI program. We strongly endorse its creation. We also look forward to working with the National Science Foundation and with the Subcommittee to ensure its future success.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I would be glad to take any questions.

See also: Hearing Summary.