Big Bird, not big tech, gets traction in debate

Presidential debate offers little help in assessing the technology investment positions of Obama and Romney

After last night's presidential debate, the possible fate of Big Bird is now known.

But the rival candidates gave no insight into the possible fate of exascale systems, the next generation of supercomputers.

In the 90-minute debate about domestic policy, neither Republican challenger Mitt Romney nor President Barack Obama detailed how the role of science and technology can stimulate the economy and creating jobs.

This omission did not go unnoticed.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, tweeted his frustration during the debate.

"Hmm. Obama & Romney spent 22 min on job-creation with hardly a sentence on the seminal role of sci-tech innovation in 21st century economies," tweeted Tyson (@neiltyson).

Obama addressed research spending broadly as part of an effort to counter Romney's tax cut position by arguing that the U.S. has a responsibility "to invest in basic science and research, all the things that are helping America grow."

Obama also cited some history to make his case for continued public investment in difficult times.

"In the middle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln said, let's help to finance the Transcontinental Railroad, let's start the National Academy of Sciences, let's start land grant colleges, because we want to give these gateways of opportunity for all Americans, because if all Americans are getting opportunity, we're all going to be better off," Obama said.

Peter Harsha, director of government affairs for the Computing Research Association, said "it's rare that federal support for science gets any sort of 'shout-out' in this sort of format, so Obama's mentions were certainly heartening," he said.

"I don't think Romney's silence on the issue signals a lack of belief in the importance of federal support -- he had other fish to fry," Harsha added.

Obama renewed his call for hiring 100,000 science and math teachers.

Romney countered that the White House spending of $90 billion on "green jobs" could have been better spent on education. "That would have hired 2 million teachers," said Romney (The Boston Globe has a breakdown of the $90 billion claim.)

The two candidates, however, have outlined their view on innovation and technology in an online forum called Science Debate.

The forum is sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Council on Competitiveness, National Academy of Sciences and other organizations.

When asked in that forum what policies will best ensure that America remains a world leader in innovation, Obama said he is "committed to doubling funding for key research agencies to support scientists and entrepreneurs."

Romney stressed the economic importance of a national investment in basic research, and also wrote that the "promotion of innovation will begin on Day One, with efforts to simplify the corporate tax code, reform job retraining programs, reduce regulatory burdens, and protect American intellectual property around the world."

But even in the Science Debate forum, specifics are missing.

In supercomputing, much attention is being directed at the global effort to build exascale systems that are roughly 1,000 times more powerful than the fastest supercomputers today.

But U.S. funding for this effort has been incremental.

The Exascale Report, a subscription publication that focuses on this community, recently conducted a survey of 83 people who work on such large-scale systems. Mike Bernhardt and Doug Black, who conducted the survey and summarized the results, said the overriding theme of respondents was frustration.

The survey comments were largely anonymous, since many people working in exascale research are employed at federally supported projects and government labs.

One of the questions in the survey was: Will the U.S. presidential election have an impact on HPC and exascale?

Here's one anonymous response: "The problem is deeper than the agenda of either presidential candidate. The problem comes from the lack of congressional commitment to very difficult and long-term research, and the fact that the science and technology leadership fails to connect the dots and recognize that economic recovery could very well be fueled by HPC innovation."

The European Commission believes exascale will require "radical innovation."

Building a system that's 1,000 times more powerful than today's high performance systems will take a 100-fold reduction in energy consumption. Scaling applications across millions of compute cores will be a challenge.

The U.S. has appropriated seed money for exascale research, but the funds are nowhere near the billions of dollars it's expected to need.

The European Commission has committed about $1.6 billion for exascale work; in the U.S., the financial commitment is less than $100 million. Meanwhile, China is moving aggressively as well and spending significant though unknown amounts.

Though exascale research funding plans went unmentioned, one of the few specific budget plans mentioned last night concerned PBS.

"I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I'm going to stop other things. I like PBS, I love Big Bird," said Romney. "But I'm not going to -- I'm not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for."

In discussing programs he would eliminate, Mitt Romney says he would end subsidies for PBS, despite saying he loved Big Bird.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, send e-mail to or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed .

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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