Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Energy Push Spurs Shift in U.S. Science

Friends and regular readers know that I am a fan of really fast computers.
The U.S. National Laboratories are well represented on the "Top 500" list, with the new heavyweight titleholder being the Jaguar-Cray monster at Oak Ridge which clocks in at 2331.00 TeraFLOPS (Rpeak). Los Alamos has the world's second fastest with Lawrence Livermore, Argonne and Sandia also making the Top10.
From the Wall Street Journal:

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. -- The Obama administration's push to solve the nation's energy problems, a massive federal program that rivals the Manhattan Project, is spurring a once-in-a-generation shift in U.S. science.

The government's multibillion-dollar push into energy research is reinvigorating 17 giant U.S.-funded research facilities, from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory here to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. After many years of flat budgets, these labs are ramping up to develop new electricity sources, trying to build more-efficient cars and addressing climate change....

...These efforts mark a third wave of spending at national labs such as Oak Ridge, a vast complex of woods and research facilities not far from Knoxville, Tenn. Oak Ridge was one of three labs set up to help build the atomic bomb during World War II. It boomed again during America's energy-independence push in the 1970s.

Oak Ridge plans to increase its staff by 25%, or 800 positions, over the next 18 months -- even as its neighbor, the University of Tennessee, has lost state funding and pared back faculty searches.

America's Labs

Take a closer look at the 17 U.S.-funded research facilities and the work they're doing.

"We have a renewed sense of mission and urgency," says Oak Ridge's director, Thom Mason.

Critics of big government say the Obama energy plan gives politicians too big a role in how the nation conducts science, just as they fret about the government's increased role in the financial sector. They also question whether the government's funding push is sustainable amid mounting budget deficits.

Others, in academics and industry, say that while government-funded research has made big gains, including advances in DNA mapping and magnetic-resonance imaging, the cost of administering such research is unnecessarily high. University-funded pure research has its own string of successes in areas from physics and chemistry to biomedicine and genetics, they say, including breakthroughs that led to the laser, pacemaker, ultrasound technology and rocket fuel.

"Most of our great breakthroughs have not been through [top-down government] funding," says Michael Witherell, a former head of the government-funded Fermilab and now vice chancellor for research at the University of California in Santa Barbara....MORE

HT: The Big Picture

Last week the Journal's Environmental Capital had a Post "Peak Oil Files: Why Is Saudi Aramco Building Supercomputers?" that intrigued the heck out of us.