I spent the week at a relatively massive conference (3000 attendees) in Barcelona Spain, the World Congress on Computational Mechanics. The meeting was large enough that I was constantly missing talks that I wanted to see because other talks were even more interesting. Originally I wanted to give four talks, but the organizers allowed only one so I was attending more talks and giving far less. Nonetheless such meetings are great opportunities to learn about what is going on around the World, get lots of new ideas, meet old friends and make new ones. It is exactly what I wrote about a few weeks ago, giving a talk is second, third or even fourth on the list of reasons to attend such a meeting.
The span and scope of the Congress is truly impressive. Computational modeling has become a pervasive aspect of modern science and engineering. The array of application is vast and impressively international in flavor. While all of this is impressive, such venues offer an opportunity to take stock of where I am, and where the United States and the rest of the World stand. All of this provides a tremendously valuable opportunity to gain much needed perspective.
An honest assessment is complex. On the one hand, the basic technical and scientific progress is immense, on the other hand there are concerns lurking around every corner. While the United States probably remain in a preeminent state for computational science and engineering, the case against this is getting stronger every day. Europe and Asia are catching up quickly if not having overtaken the USA in many subfields. Across the board there are signs of problems and stagnation in the field. It would seem clear that people know this and it isn’t clear whether there is any action to address problems. Among these issues is the increased use of a narrow set of software tools either commercial or open source computational tools with a requisite lack of knowledge and expertise in the core methods and algorithms used inside them. In addition, the nature of professional education and the state of professionalism is under assault by societal forces,
Despite the massive size of the meeting there are substantial signs that support for research in the field is declining in size and changing in character. It was extremely difficult to see “big” things happening in the field. The question is whether this is the sign of a mature field where slow progress is happening, or the broad lack of support for truly game-changing work. It could also be a sign that the creative energy in science has moved to other areas that are “hotter” such biology, medicine, materials, … There was a notable lack of exciting keynote lectures at the meeting. There didn’t seem to be any “buzz” with any of them. This was perhaps the single most disappointing aspect of the conference.
A couple of things are clear in the United States and Europe the research environment is in crisis under assault from short-term thinking, funding shortfalls (after making funding the end-all and be-all), and educational malaise. For example, I was horrified that Europeans are looking to the USA for guidance on improving their education. This comes on top of my increasing concern about the nature of professional development at the sort of Labs where I work, and the general lack of educational vitality at universities. More and more it is clear that the chief measure of academic success for professors in monetary. The claims of research quality are measured in dollars and the publish or perish mentality that has ravaged the scientific literature. It is a system in dire need of focused reform and should not be the blueprint for anything but failure. The monetary drive comes from the lack of support that education is receiving from the government, which has driven tuition higher at a stunning pace. At the same time the monetary objective of research funding is hollowing out the educational focus universities should possess. The research itself has a short-term focus, and the lack of emphasis or priority for developing people be they students or professionals shares the short sighted outcome. We are draining our system of the vital engine of innovation that has been the key to our recent economic successes.
Another clear trend that resonates with my attendance at the SIAM annual meeting a few weeks ago is the increasing divide between applied mathematic (or theoretical mechanics) and applications. The disparity in focus between the theoretically minded scientists and the application-focused scientist-engineer is growing to the detriment of the community. The application side of things is increasingly using commercial codes that tend to reflect a deep stagnation in capability (aside from the user interface). The theoretical side is focused on idealized problems stripped of real features that complicate the results making for lots of results that no one on the applied side cares about or can use. The divide is only growing with fewer and fewer reaching across the chasm to connect theory to application.
The push from applications has in the past spurred the theoretical side to advance by attacking more difficult problems. Those days appear to be gone. I might blame the prevalence of the sort of short-term thinking investing other areas for this. Both sides of this divide seem to be driven to take few chances and place their efforts into the safe and sure category of work. The theoretical side is working on problems where results can surely be produced (with the requisite publications). By the same token the applied side uses tried and true methods to get some results without having to wait or hope for a breakthrough. The result is a deep sense of abandonment of progress on many fronts.
The increasing dominance of a small number of codes either commercial or open source would be another deep concern. Part of the problem is a reality (or perception) of extensive costs associated with the development of software. People choose to use these off-the-shelf systems because they cannot afford to build their own. On the other hand, by making these choices they and their students or staff are denied the hands on knowledge of the methodology that leads to deep expertise. This is all part of this short-term focus that is bleeding the entire community of deep expertise development necessary for excellence. The same attitudes and approach happen at large laboratories that should seemingly not have the sort of financial and time pressures operating in academia. This whole issue is exacerbated by the theoretical versus applied divide. So far we haven’t made scientific and engineering software modular or componentized. Further the leading edge efforts with “modules” often are so divorced from real problems that they can’t really be relied upon for hard-core applications. Again we have problems with adapting to the modern world confounded with the short-term focus, and success measures that do not measure success.
Perhaps what I’m seeing is a veritable mid-life crisis. The field of computational science and engineering has become mature. It is remarkably broad and making inroads into new areas and considered a full partner with traditional activities in most high-tech industries. At the same time there is a stunning lack of self-awareness, and a loss of knowledge and perspective on the history of the past fifty to seventy years that led to this point. Larger societal pressures and trends are pushing the field in directions that are counter-productive and work actively to undermine the potential of the future. All of this is happening at the same time that computer hardware is either undergoing a crisis or phase transition to a different state. Together we are entering an exciting, but dangerous time that will require great wisdom to navigate. I truly fear that the necessary wisdom while available will not be called upon. If we continue to choose the shortsighted path and avoid doing some difficult things, the outcome could be quite damaging.
A couple of notes about the venue should be made. Barcelona is a truly beautiful city with wonderful weather, people, architecture food, mass transit, I really enjoyed the visit, and there is plenty to comment on. Too few Americans have visited other countries to put their own country in perspective. After a short time you start to hone in on the differences between where you visit and where you live. Coming from America and hearing about the Spanish economy I expected far more homelessness and obvious poverty. I saw very little of either societal ill during my visit. If this is what economic disaster looks like, then it’s hard to see it as an actual disaster. Frankly, the USA looks much worse by comparison with a supposedly recovering economy. There are private security guards everywhere. The amount of security and the meeting was actually a bit distressing. In contrast to this in a week, at a hotel across the street from the hospital, I heard exactly one siren, amazing. As usual getting away from my standard environment is thought provoking, which is always a great thing.