He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.
― Friedrich Nietzsche
At work we often justify the research we do through declaring that it is mission-relevant, or mission-focused. The work is automatically important and necessary if it supports our mission. Defining the mission is then essential to this conversation. Currently in my work, the discussion of what the mission is focuses on high performance computing. The pregnant question is whether my work’s mission is high performance computing?
I unilaterally reject this as a mission.
High performance computing is a “how” and so is “modeling and simulation” for that matter. Both things are tools to conduct science and engineering specialized to a purpose. Neither is a viable mission or reason in and of itself. Missions are better defined as “what’s” like nuclear weapons, economic competitiveness or scientific investigation. The high performance computing is how modeling and simulation is done, which is how aspects of nuclear weapons work or science or industrial work is done, but certainly not all of any of these. We still haven’t gotten to why we do these things. Why we fund high performance computing for modeling and simulation to support the nuclear weapons stockpile is an intricate question worth some further exploration.
A knee jerk response is “National Security,” which avoids a deeper discussion. The defense of a Nation State is associated with ability of the citizens of that Nation to achieve a degree of access to resources that raise their access to a good life. With more resources the citizens can aspire toward a better, easier more fulfilled life. In essence the security of a Nation can allow people to exist higher on Maslow’s hierarchy needs. In the United States this is commonly expressed as “freedom”. Freedom is a rather superficial thing when used as a slogan. The needs of the citizens begin with having food and shelter than allow them to aspire toward a sense of personal safety. Societal safety is one means of achieving this (not that safety and security are pretty low on the hierarchy). With these in hand, the sense of community can be pursued and then sense of an esteemed self. Finally we get to the peak and the ability to pursue ones full personal potential.
At the lowest part of the hierarchy is subsistence, the need for basic resources to survive. If one exists at this level, life isn’t very good, but its achievement is necessary for a better life. Gradually one moves up the hierarchy requiring greater access to resources and ease of maintaining the lower positions on the hierarchy. A vibrant National Security should allow this to happen, the richer a Nation becomes the higher on the hierarchy of needs its citizens reside. It is with some recognition of irony that my efforts and the Nation is stuck at such a low level on the hierarchy. Efforts toward bolstering the community the Nation forms seem to be too difficult to achieve today. We seem to be regressing from being a community or achieving personal fulfillment. We are stuck trying to be safe and secure. The question is whether those in the Nation can effectively provide the basis for existing high on the hierarchy of needs without being there themselves?
My observation about my work is that the people doing the work to support National Security are moving to lower and lower levels of the hierarchy by being isolated from the “why’s” of their work, and pushed into a subsistence existence focused on the “how’s”. Increasingly the work is even divorced from the “what’s” and the “why” is never even considered. As a result people simply do what they are told without considering what it is for, or why they are doing it. The result is a decline in the quality and applicability of the foundational work, which should adapt to the needs of its use and inspired by the underlying reasons. This issue is rampant in high performance computing where its utility for modeling and simulation is intellectually threadbare, and those working in computing barely consider what any of their work will be used for.
We are seeing our scientific community pushed to ever lower rungs Maslow’s pyramid. Part of this is the pervasive distrust of experts and education in the United States and perhaps the entirety of the West. These problems are harbingers of decline and hardly support the expansion and vibrancy of democracy or freedom.