The Meaning of the FY18 Exascale Request – A Former Insider’s Perspective

By Alex R. Larzelere

May 30, 2017

“No money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” These words are from the U.S. Constitution (Article 1, Section 9, Clause 7) and proudly adorn the website header of the House of Representative’s Appropriations Committee. The effect of these words is that the recently released Presidential Budget for Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 is just a starting point and has a very long way to go before it becomes law. That being said, while the budget is just a “suggestion” to Congress that is likely “dead on arrival,” it is a very strong suggestion and tells us a lot about the direction of the new administration. For exascale computing and advanced modeling and simulation this is very good news.

Understanding how much good news this means requires a bit of understanding about the minutiae of the federal budgeting process. Sorry for the budgeting wonk-speech, but this will help. Under normal circumstances, the process of writing the President’s budget starts about a year before it is submitted. That happens when the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) gives budget allocations to the agencies of the Executive Branch. That starts a process of negotiations and refinements of the budget. It also unleashes a huge amount of work by federal employees (aka feds) to write the thousands of pages of material that will eventually be released as part of the official presidential budget.

However, for the new administration’s FY18 budget that year long process was compressed down to a couple of months. When President Trump was inaugurated in January, a FY18 budget (done by the previous administration) was close to its final form. Usually, after taking office, a new administration will make a few tweaks to that budget and will submit it to Congress in February or March. However, President Trump and his Director or OMB, Mick Mulvaney, had other plans. In March, they released a “skinny version” of their plans for the FY18 budget. This effectively turned the regular budget development process on its head both in terms of its timing and allocation of dollars.

First, the timing — the release of the budget blueprint in March and the determination to release the full budget in May required that the normally year long process be condensed down to about two months. Granted, a tremendous amount of material for the FY18 budget already existed, but the OMB decision to issue a new blueprint required the feds to reengage in the process that goes from the White House to the agency heads through their Chief Financial Officers down to the offices and then back again. If you have not heard lately from your federal employee counterpart, this is likely the reason why. They have been busy!

Second, the allocations — as was extensively reported, the Trump administration’s skinny budget made substantial changes to the structure of the budget. This reflects very different priorities and their philosophy about the role of the federal government. Another important reason for the major shifts in funding levels was to create fiscal flexibility to make changes. The reality of the federal budget is that to make changes, without raising overall budget levels, requires stopping something “old” to do something “new.” The process of stopping or lowering existing federal government programs is very hard. This is because existing programs have groups that are benefiting from them and they understand how to apply pressure in the right places to keep them going. Remember the subsidy for mohair wool that started during the Korean War and ran for about 50 years.

Now — back to the Department of Energy (DOE) and the amazingly good news for exascale. The bottom line is that the President’s FY18 budget proposes to spend $508 million on exascale-related activities. This is a 77 percent increase over the FY17 enacted levels. The intent of this funding is to put the U.S. on track to have a productive exascale system by 2021. Funding is divided between two DOE programs, the Office of Science and the semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). The NNSA request directs $161 million for the Advanced Simulation and Computing (ASC) program and another $22 million to begin construction of the physical infrastructure for the exascale system. The Office of Science (SC) money ($347 million) would go to the Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR) program. (See Tiffany Trader’s coverage in HPCwire for a detailed look at the numbers.)

Both the NNSA and SC exascale activities will be the subject of debate as the President’s FY18 budget request moves forward in Congress. However, given the cuts that were seen in the rest of the DOE budget, getting to this point could be considered a minor miracle. Getting the increases to the NNSA exascale budget was likely to be relatively easy. President Trump said he was going to increase the federal government budget’s emphasis on national security and set aside about $1 billion for the NNSA. Using part of that to add to the ASC program must have been straightforward. That being said, there must have been a tremendous amount of work and planning needed to create the budget justification material.

The real challenge must have been on the SC side of the ECI numbers. In the March “skinny budget,” President Trump and Director Mulvaney proposed to cut the Office of Science by about $900 million. A cut like that in a roughly $6 billion program is huge and requires a major shift in the direction of SC. There are six research programs in SC and under normal circumstance, each of them would be expected to take part of the cut. However, this year, one program (ASCR), would not only survive intact, but would grow by about $300 million. That required the other five offices to take an even deeper cut. It must have been uncomfortable for the Director of the ASCR program to sit at the table with her peers. In any case, just like the NNSA ASC feds, there had to be a tremendous amount of work done by the SC feds to plan and create the justifications for the $347 million that would be added to ASCR program. And once again, that had to be done in only about two months. The lights in the DOE Forrestal and Germantown offices must have burned late into the night.

So — here we are. The President’s FY18 budget has been submitted. It is a big step, but only the first one. Now the Congressional Appropriations sub-committees’ staffers on the House and Senate sides will dismantle the numbers and start the process of having hearings and collecting information from a wide variety of sources to come up with their own version of the budget. Over the next few months, this will result in what is known as a “mark-up” of the budget. This will take two forms. One is changes that are made to the actual appropriation legislation. The second is known as “report language” that provides detailed instructions on how the DOE should spend the appropriated funds. And just to complicate things a bit more, there is also authorization language that comes from other committees in the Congress. Keep in mind, authorizations provide the permission to spend money, but appropriations put actual money in the checking account.

As noted above, the recently released President’s FY18 budget is likely to be “dead on arrival.” However, the real effect of the budget is the signals that it sends. Clearly President Trump’s administration is signaling some very significant changes in direction. The pros and cons of those changes will be debated long and hard in Congress and other places. However, the fact that the administration went to the considerable trouble to boost the exascale budget by the amount it did should be seen as a very positive sign by those who care about U.S. leadership in high performance computing and advanced modeling and simulation. Over the past few months, Secretary of Energy Perry has talked about his understanding of the importance of supercomputing and exascale. This budget signals that he is clearly committed to putting money where is mouth is.

About the Author

Alex Larzelere is a senior fellow at the U.S. Council on Competitiveness and the president of Larzelere & Associates Consulting. He is currently a technologist, speaker and author on a number of disruptive technologies that include: advanced modeling and simulation; high performance computing; artificial intelligence; the Internet of Things; and additive manufacturing. Alex’s career has included time in federal service (working closely with DOE national labs), private industry, and as founder of a small business. Throughout that time, he led programs that implemented the use of cutting edge advanced computing technologies to enable high resolution, multi-physics simulations of complex physical systems. Alex is the author of “Delivering Insight: The History of the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative (ASCI).”

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