Gordon Bell Discusses New Prize for Climate Modeling

By Oliver Peckham

February 8, 2023

During the awards ceremony at SC22 in Dallas, one reveal flew a bit under the radar amid the celebration: the introduction of a new Gordon Bell Prize that ACM President Cherri Pancake said would “be for applications addressing climate change.” Since then, we’ve learned a lot more about the prize – and we also had the chance to speak with Gordon Bell himself about his decision to create it.

The ACM Gordon Bell Prize for Climate Modeling will be awarded for the first time this year at SC23 in Denver. It replaces the Gordon Bell Special Prize for HPC-Based Covid-19 research, which was first awarded in 2020 and awarded for a third and final time in 2022.

Per ACM, the new prize “aims to recognize innovative parallel computing contributions toward solving the global climate crisis”; like the main Gordon Bell Prize, it will be accompanied by a $10,000 award provided by Gordon Bell. The nominees and winners will be selected based on their potential to impact climate modeling and related fields.

An edited recording of HPCwire‘s interview with Gordon Bell, which is cited throughout this story, is embedded below.

The inception of the climate prize

As for how the idea for the prize came about?

“One of the big things that’s been going on is just not admitting that climate is manmade,” Gordon Bell told HPCwire. “Maybe one of the great contributions to computing has been being able to model well enough to convince people that it’s manmade.”

Gordon Bell

“The prize this time… I woke up angry about – I shouldn’t say angry about, but just disappointed [that] there’s not a really good ledger about what’s going on here,” Bell said. “We’re not at any level – I don’t think we’re at a good national level yet as to: what are our commitments, and how are we doing vis-à-vis the commitments? To me, it’s so vague at this point. That’s one aspect. The prize I hope will help a little bit in that. … In order to get change going on, you really have to assign what you’re doing, and I just am so disappointed. It’s such a massive problem.”

To that end, Bell has ideas about what sort of research he’d like to see the new prize inspire. “Can you build an interactive system that would really work at a reasonable resolution, and vast enough, so you can do ‘what if’ kinds of things?” Bell said. “So I was envisioning this ideal simulator that’s interactive and real-time … we need tools like that.”

“There’s this whole area of things called attribution science,” he continued. “People will be winning prizes about that, being able to segment how much [emitted carbon] a certain phenomenon is creating, particularly as nations make promises: ‘We’ll pay for all the damage we did… well, wait a minute, how much damage did we do?’”

Creativity and collaboration

While Bell has his ideas, he’s the first to acknowledge that the recipients of the prizes he funds often veer off in unexpected directions. With the Covid prize, for instance, Bell thought the most valuable angle would be improving the epidemiological predictions. “It turns out,” he said, “no one submitted anything to help predict. On the other hand, the three winners worked on different aspects of the virus, including the 2022 winner using AI on a [Cerebras] CS-2 computer to generate likely variants and hence model potential vaccine effectiveness.”

“People, I think, will be very creative about their work [with the new prize],” Bell continued. “What I hope happens is it stimulates a different kind of approach, because to me, climate modeling seems to be, maybe, fixed in terms of what it is, and waiting for more power. But I think we need to think of different ways of doing it. And I think AI has a role to play.”

“I feel just wonderful about being able to slightly reward these people who are working on these machines,” Bell said. “To me, it’s personally rewarding to be able to acknowledge this incredible work that’s going on. You have to have an appreciation of how difficult it is.”

Bell added that one could see the increasing complexity reflected in the increasing number of authors on prize-winning HPC research, comparing it to high-energy physics papers from CERN that have hundreds of authors. While Bell acknowledged the contributions of institutions like climate departments at universities and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), he said the scale and complexity of the problem pointed to a need for even more “huge, collaborative efforts.”

“Just looking at the whole thing – the whole biosphere problem and how vast it is, and how every year something turns out to be more critical or a thing that we didn’t understand well enough,” he added, citing recent discoveries on Antarctic ice feedbacks. “To me these are massive phenomena that will have worldwide consequences.”

A long-term vision for a long-term problem

Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that while the Covid-19 award was called a “Special Prize,” the new climate award is simply a “Prize.”

“The Covid Prize was initially funded for two years and then extended … since I thought the problem would be under control,” Bell said. “It was conceived as a problem that had to be solved immediately,” he continued, adding that it was not thought of as a “forever” problem. (Covid researchers can now submit to the regular Gordon Bell Prize.)

By way of contrast, the Gordon Bell Prize for Climate Modeling is not at all intended as a short-term spotlight.

“Certainly, I thought, we need at least ten years,” Bell said. “I can imagine being around to watch that.” ACM’s website confirms that the new prize will be awarded every year for 10 years; in 2032, the final year of that period, Bell will be 98 years old. Funnily enough, Bell said that the main prize also began with a ten-year term in mind; that prize has been running since 1987.

“The original 1987 prize given was conceived to operate only a decade to stimulate the incredible efforts that were necessary,” Bell said. “It turns out that exploiting these wonderful machines seems to be a forever challenge!”

“The Covid and climate modeling prizes were similarly conceived as ‘aha’ movements based on a seemingly intractable and growing problem not being adequately addressed; the growth in memory size and exa-ops processing; and my imagining ways to solve the problems,” he continued. “HPC was the only hammer I knew about, and a prize was a proven way to get the tool used.”

The ACM Gordon Bell Prize for Climate modeling is now accepting nominations. The window closes on April 15th.

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