'Sputnik moment' looms for U.S. as R&D ebbs

Top U.S. researchers warn Congress that America's lead in supercomputer development is in danger due to R&D budget cuts.

In October 2010, China built what was then the world's fastest supercomputer. Three months later, President Barack Obama warned in his State of the Union address that America was facing a "Sputnik moment."

Pointing to rapid technological advances in other countries, China in particular, Obama called for more federal investment in research into biomedical engineering, clean energy and information technology.

That call went unheeded, and two years later that Sputnik moment still looms. Federal spending on R&D is at its lowest level in 40 years, thanks to the ongoing budget dispute between Congress and the White House that led to sequestration, says the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The cuts threaten to hurt a slew of projects, including U.S. development of an exascale computer that would be roughly 1,000 times more powerful than today's systems.

While Congress was preoccupied with hearings on the IRS scandal late last month, top U.S. supercomputing researchers told a House energy subcommittee that China, Japan and Europe are investing heavily in supercomputer development, and may beat the U.S. in the race to exascale systems.

At current levels of investment, the U.S. likely won't have exascale technology until "the middle of the next decade," said Rick Stevens, associate laboratory director at Argonne National Lab.

Meanwhile, Japan is spending $1.1 billion to develop exascale machines by 2020, "and China has announced a goal to reach exascale before 2020," Stevens said.

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