Trump budget cuts may gift China supercomputing crown

(Image: IDGNS)

28 February 2017

The White House plans to substantially hike defense spending, but it’s going to cut other agency budgets with a big axe. It is nail-biting time for people who develop supercomputers and do other scientific work that relies on federal R&D funding.

The White House said Monday it will increase defense spending, currently at about $600 billion, by $54 billion or 9%. But most other agencies, with the exception of ‘security agencies,’ will see budget reductions, it said at a briefing for reporters on Monday.

This means the cuts will fall heavily on agencies such as the Department of Energy, which funds exascale supercomputing development. Another target may be the National Science Foundation, a major funder of basic scientific research. Overall, the cuts will be focused on civilian agencies because there isn’t a lot of room to cut otherwise. The Trump administration is expected to leave Medicare and Social Security alone.

“If the president wants to cut things like exascale computing, we can be absolutely 100% sure that America will be less great,” said Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF).

China continues to remind the US that it is winning the supercomputing race. It plans to release the first prototype exascale supercomputer, the Tianhe-3, in early 2018 – state media had previously reported late 2017 – according to a recent report in China Daily, a state-run news outlet.

China’s exascale system “will be made entirely in China from processors to operating system,” and will be fully operational by 2020 – “earlier than the US plan for its exascale supercomputer,” the China Daily noted.

In December, the US developed a plan to shave two years off its exascale timetable with the goal of releasing a system by 2021, still a year behind China. This accelerated schedule, developed before President Donald Trump took office, requires more funding, but a cut in the DoE’s advanced computing budget may well delay a US-made exascale system.

A petaflop system can perform one quadrillion arithmetic operations per second. An exascale system runs at 1,000 petaflops.

The problem with the Trump administration is it may not be convinced it’s in competition with China or with other nations globally.

The ITIF Monday released a report warning that the Trump administration will “torpedo US growth” if it adopts conservative think tank Heritage Foundation’s “ideological blueprint” for federal investment.

The United States’ R&D funding as a percentage of GDP has been declining while China’s increases, said Atkinson. “There should be zero doubt about what’s going to happen after you keep that trend up a while,” said Atkinson. “They will win if we don’t change course.”

Atkinson would like to see the US increase, over five years, R&D by $100 billion, which would raise the R&D budget to a level that is comparable with that in President Ronald Reagan’s era.

If the Trump administration follows Heritage’s advice and rolls back the Department of Energy’s advanced-computing research to the 2008 level – a 35% cut – the U.S. “would cede the advantage to America’s global competitors, which are doing the exact opposite – significantly increasing their investment in R&D and deployment of these technologies,” the ITIF said in its report.

Ray Bjorklund, president of government IT market research firm Birchgrove Consulting, expects the Trump administration will get some, but not all, of what it asks for from Congress. The Democrats will likely seek increases in domestic spending in exchange for a large hike in national security spending, he said.

Bjorklund believes that federal contract spending in most agencies will decline 10%.

“The ramp-up in national security spending will be largely directed to hiring people, namely armed service members and law enforcement officers for border protection and customs and immigration enforcement,” said Bjorklund.

The Trump budget also could spell trouble for other science-based agencies such as NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

IDG News Service

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