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Photo of Arden Bement

Dr. Arden L. Bement, Jr.
National Science Foundation

"Cyberinfrastructure Supports Science Into the Future"
Graduate Research Fellows
Cyberinfrastructure Workshop
Arlington, VA

October 17, 2007

Thank you Dr. Hahn. It is my pleasure to speak to our outstanding Graduate Research Fellows and Honorable Mentionees. I would like to begin by extending my congratulations to each of you. Every year, the GRF selection committees are faced with the unenviable task of selecting just a few awardees from a large pool of outstanding applications. Receiving a Fellowship or an Honorable Mention is a significant achievement and each of you should be very proud of your accomplishments.

The Graduate Research Fellowship Program is one of the oldest programs administered by the NSF. Now in its fifty-fifth year, the program continues to fulfill one of the core missions of the NSF -- to assure that some of the Nation's most talented students in science and engineering obtain the education necessary to become creative and productive scientific researchers.

You are now part of a tradition as old as the NSF itself.

I've entitled my remarks "Cyberinfrastructure Supports Science into the Future." I hope that by the end of the day, you’ll have a clear understanding of how vital cyberinfrastructure is and will continue to be to science and engineering research.

As recipients of either a Fellowship or an Honorable Mention, you are in the unique position to have a valuable research tool at your disposal: the TeraGrid cyberinfrastructure supercomputing resources that you’ll learn about during today’s workshop. In fact, some of you are participating in today’s workshop from TeraGrid sites.

Did you know that you are the only group of people without Ph.D.s who can request allocations on the TeraGrid?

I invite you to think big as you participate in this workshop. Ask yourself how access to TeraGrid can help you in your research efforts and advance science and engineering beyond your imagination. You may find answers that surprise you.

Researchers far removed from most people's mental image of "computer scientists or engineers" -- such as molecular biologists and social scientists -- are leading cyber revolutions in their fields as they connect with fellow researchers, create vast databases, and perform enormous computational tasks on remote supercomputers.

We've been using the term 'cyberinfrastructure' quite a bit around NSF lately. We even have an entire Office devoted to it—the Office of Cyberinfrastructure. You might be wondering what exactly is meant by the term 'cyberinfrastructure'. This infrastructure at present is in embryonic form. The foundations we’re laying today, like the physical infrastructure of a building or city, is the supporting framework necessary for the scientific discoveries of the future. It is a lattice of hardware, software, advanced instrumentation, data repositories, and other communication technologies.

These impressive facilities, as advanced as they are, do not run by themselves. At the heart of the infrastructure are people, and the culture that supports collaboration, information sharing, and open and broad access to computing resources. Without people fostering communication, building relationships, and striving to educate future users of cyberinfrastructure, in fact all of our efforts would be in vain. Today, you will learn about how you can become a part of this community.

As you think about the possibilities of using TeraGrid for your current research, also bear in mind your future career. Cyberinfrastructure technologies will continue to transform not just academic science, but industrial research and development as well. Supercomputing experience will be a valuable asset to you as you move forward in your career, whether in academia, industry, or government.

To underscore the raw potential of the cyberinfrastructure facilities you’ll learn about today, and to provide a little historical context, I’d like to share with you a brief history of NSF’s relationship with the earliest conception of cyberinfrastructure. It began as a novel idea: a network to allow researchers and educators a way to share data and computational resources. That rudimentary collegiate network has evolved into an indispensable part of our daily lives, the Internet.

In 1985, the NSF announced the creation of a network for academics to share computational resources, similar to a network already in place among Department of Defense scientists.

Unlike the restricted DOD network, the Foundation required colleges and universities connecting to its network, called NSFNET, to provide access to all eligible users on campus, regardless of discipline. What was true then -- that electronic connectivity is not the exclusive domain of the computer science department -- remains true today. All branches of science benefit from widespread data sharing and access to powerful computing resources.

To be sure, the creation of the Internet was a collaborative effort involving many individuals and agencies. Just as Al Gore didn’t exactly "invent" the Internet, NSF certainly wasn't the only organization involved in the early days of networking. Perhaps NSF's most important contribution, beyond the dollars for infrastructure and computing resources, was the philosophy that the Internet be widespread and widely accessible. Over the years, NSF has remained committed to the idea that access to state-of-the-art computational capacity is an essential ingredient of scientific research.

It's amazing how far those early networks have come. At that time, no one envisioned the full scope of the Internet -- how it would touch and transform our lives. Today, it's nearly impossible to imagine a world without email, websites, and instant access to information.

NSF's present investment in cyberinfrastructure resources is greater than ever as we anticipate the ever-increasing involvement of cyberinfrastructure in all aspects of science and engineering.

As our progress from NSFNET to the modern Internet illustrates, the payoffs of our investments will be beyond what we can imagine now. For you at the beginning of your scientific careers, there has never been a better time to utilize computational resources for research. And the capabilities will continue to grow and amaze. We cannot fathom what will be possible in just a few decades, let alone the span of your careers!

I myself marvel at the changes since my initial forays into scientific computing at the University of Michigan in the late 1950s when I was a graduate student, not much farther along in my career than you all are today. That was a period when top research universities were just beginning to integrate computer problem-solving into science and engineering courses. Michigan was a leader in this movement, with its pioneering program called MAD -- Michigan Algorithm Decoder.

Computational science was in its relative infancy and the sun was just peeking over the horizon of the digital age. Our input into the computer consisted of cardboard punch cards, which were processed mechanically.

That exciting world kept us busy during the day -- and at night. Programming involved a lengthy card punching and batch sorting routine, after which a student submitted a program as a "deck of cards" and waited several hours to find out if the program even worked. I remember many nights when sleep took a lower priority than correcting errors and resubmitting the deck, in order to meet a morning deadline for an exam or final project.

Well, to put it mildly, we've come a long way from those days. In just a handful of decades, the speed and capacity of scientific computing has gone through a change roughly equivalent to that from horse and buggy to personal space travel.

What will the next handful of decades bring?

No doubt you yourselves will look back years from now and marvel at how far scientific computing has come from your graduate school experience. One thing that hasn’t changed from my graduate school days, and that won’t change during your career or for the foreseeable future, is the need for computational tools that expand and challenge the frontiers of our scientific knowledge.

I encourage you to take the opportunity to jump in and join the rapid pace of progress at this early stage in your career. Learn what you can about TeraGrid and the other cyberinfrastructure resources you'll hear about during the workshop -- I can guarantee you'll find value in adding cyberinfrastructure to your research repertoire. If not in your current research, then certainly in your future scientific endeavors.

Once again, congratulations on your achievements, and feel free to use the facilities at your AccessGrid node to participate -- you should have microphone and video capabilities.

Thank you, and welcome to the Cyberinfrastructure Resources Workshop!

At this time, I would be delighted to answer any questions that you all might have.