Report: US Competitiveness Called Into Question (Again)

By Tiffany Trader

June 6, 2019

A new report from the Task Force on American Innovation (TFAI) claims the United States is in jeopardy of losing its leadership position in technology, science and innovation. The report, titled “Benchmarks 2019: Second Place America? Increasing Challenges to U.S. Scientific Leadership,” includes an overview of the global state of supercomputing as one of the metrics to gauge competitiveness.

Here’s an excerpt:

The U.S. invested heavily in both the physical infrastructure of supercomputers and the related research field of supercomputing in the 1980s and 1990s. The U.S. has reaped the benefits of this investment by being the world leader in computing fields and introducing several new products, including the internet. However, this supremacy is being challenged.

■ Since TFAI’s 2005 Benchmarks Report, the U.S. has surrendered its commanding lead in the world’s top supercomputers. On the Top 500 list of the world’s fastest supercomputers (see GRAPH 5.21), the U.S. in 2005 controlled almost half the world’s top supercomputers; it now controls less than a quarter, with China now controlling the largest number of the fastest supercomputers.

■ Changing the benchmark to the top 100 supercomputers (see GRAPH 5.22), U.S. leadership is on a downward trajectory. The U.S.’s lack of investment over the past two decades is best demonstrated by China gaining the top spot on the list in 2010 and the U.S. did not recapture that spot until 2018.

As a point of clarification, China’s long run atop the Top500 actually began in June 2013 with the installation of Tianhe-2A followed by Sunway TiahuLight in 2016. The U.S. regained the number one spot in June 2018 with Summit, but also had number one systems in June 2012 (Sequoia) and November 2012 (Titan).

While dire in tone, the report references the strong U.S. exascale computing strategy, noting the Department of Energy’s intention to field an exascale-class supercomputer in 2021 (Aurora and Frontier are on competitive timelines). The report also cites the National Quantum Initiative Act, which was signed into law last year, setting up a framework to accelerate the development of quantum information science and technology applications over the next ten years.

“Maintaining America’s global leadership status is critical to national security as well as to future economic growth and prosperity,” the report authors assert. “However, the diminishing presence of the U.S. within the global share of research and development (R&D) is a threat to the nation’s scientific enterprise, indicating a lack of federal commitment to scientific research programs at agencies, such as the Departments of Defense (DOD) and Energy (DOE), National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST). This lack of commitment could lead to decreased economic competitiveness as well as negative impacts on our domestic workforce and industries.”

Not mentioned in the paper are the challenges of yearly funding cycles, made worse by government shutdowns, continuing resolutions and administrative swings, but U.S. advanced computing investment is largely a bipartisan effort with more dollars tending to go to basic research under Democratic administrations and more funding apportioned to military uses under Republican-led Congresses. Regardless of actual funding levels, however, playing up potential shortcomings in the global technology race is Washington real-politik for motivating strong commitment for the next round of science and technology funding.

The research paper is the fourth “benchmarking” report that TFAI has released since the organization’s founding in 2004. In addition to covering the high-tech sectors (supercomputing, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, aerospace, telecommunications and biotechnology), the scope of benchmarking also extends to four other focus areas: research & development investment, knowledge creation & new ideas, education, and workforce.

Computing Research Association (CRA) Policy Analyst and Co-chair of the report Brian Mosley, stated “the trends found in the original Benchmarks report in 2005, and the two subsequent follow-up reports, persist and the U.S. continues to lose ground to other nations in investments in science, technology, and talent.

“The report makes clear that the U.S. needs to capitalize on its tremendous assets and make technological pre-eminence a national priority. This can be achieved through a national strategy that includes increased funding for scientific research and human capital development, and targeted investments in new programs to grow, attract, and retain domestic and international STEM talent.”

The Task Force on American Innovation (TFAI) bills itself as a non-partisan alliance of leading American companies and business associations, research university associations, and scientific societies. Semiconductor Industry Association and IBM execs chair the organization, and the membership roster spans about 60 organizations, including Google, IEEE, HPE, Intel, Microsoft and Cray. The CRA was one of first members and played a key role in the development and release of the report series.

Link to paper: http://www.innovationtaskforce.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Benchmarks-2019-SPA-Final4.pdf

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