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America needs a National Guard for scientists

What do some of the most important institutions in the United States—the Social Security Administration, the U.S. National Laboratories, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), NASA, and the Department of Homeland Security—have in common? All of them have their origins in crises, ranging from the Great Depression and the Second World War to the Cold War and 9/11.

Crises have always been catalysts for institutional renewal and reinvention, and the coronavirus pandemic will be no exception. Even now, when all we can see is tragedy and emergency, the coalitions that are forming and the solutions that are emerging will lay the foundation for the institutions of the future.

The creation of the largest public-private supercomputing partnership in history is a prime example. The COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium, of which I’m a cochair, has brought together tech industry leaders, seven U.S. National Labs, the National Science Foundation, NASA, and over a dozen universities at an unprecedented scale, and has given researchers worldwide access to the world’s most powerful computing resources. 

The sophisticated computing systems available through this consortium can process massive numbers of calculations related to bioinformatics, epidemiology, and molecular modeling, helping scientists develop answers to complex scientific questions about COVID-19 in hours or days versus weeks or months.

The collaboration is yielding results. There are teams using machine learning to determine the structures of certain proteins in the virus, which are important in the development of therapeutics and vaccines. A Utah State University team has measured just how rapidly breath droplets from a person speaking or coughing propagate in a room—a result that could help hospitals decide where to place equipment or patients’ beds. Meanwhile, a group of researchers from Cornell have used the consortium’s computing boost to simulate for the first time precisely how and where the virus penetrates the human cell. This research could help design new drugs against COVID-19. There are also scientists at Iowa State University who are looking at why African-Americans may be more susceptible to the disease. And the consortium is doing so much more

For now, the pandemic is raging on. It will be over one day, but we know it won’t be the last major threat the world will face. To beat COVID-19 and to prepare for the next global crisis, the incoming Biden administration and Congress must put science front and center by creating a new national (and in the future, international) body. I call it the Science Readiness Reserves (SRR).

Think of this organization as a (inter)National Guard of volunteer scientists from industry, academia, and government laboratories who rigorously prepare for a natural disaster or national security threat that lurks around the corner, to then be able to respond with the most effect, saving lives. Modeled on the HPC Consortium, and also inspired by the idea of reserve forces that extend the capacity of the military in times of need, this body of global experts will stand ready to apply cutting-edge and emerging technologies like high-performance computing, artificial intelligence, genomic sequencing and biotechnology (and in the future, quantum computing) to crises, helping us address challenges and emergencies in health care, climate, food and energy security, and so much more.

The SRR’s core leadership team would also collaborate with experts inside governments to help speed up the response and recovery process. A potential model would call for the creation of a government Program Office that would take responsibility for coordination across agencies (such as the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation) and for approving trigger and resource allocation policies. In the case of the U.S., such an office could be sponsored and run out of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) within the executive branch.  

Scientists stand ready to serve the nation—and the world. Now is the time to empower them. By enabling researchers in private and public sectors to pool their scientific and technical expertise, we can make a dent in the next crisis before it balloons, preventing harm and creating prosperity in the process. The Science Readiness Reserves offer an opportunity to create a new type of institution for our times, recognizing that the scientific capacity of our nation is distributed among government organizations, academia, foundations, and the private sector. (It is worth remembering that the private sector is responsible for 70{ce8ce7cc98bffdc4302011057a79600ea02c464c5536f1477c12acdb8bd79c00} of the annual $600 billion of R&D expenditures in the U.S.)

At IBM, we stand ready to participate and commit both leadership and resources to this effort, tapping into the passion and talent of our researchers, and leveraging our hybrid cloud infrastructure to bring the best of open-source software, A.I., high-performance computing, and quantum computing to bear. Working with my fellow board members of the HPC Consortium, we are already discussing the possibility of evolving it into a National Strategic Computing Reserve. We can imagine multiple such reserves being created, with a National Strategic Genomic Sequencing Reserve as another example. A network of these bodies would then form the (Inter)National Science Readiness Reserves.

We must put emerging technologies, global talent, and infrastructure at the forefront of the government’s response to crises to accelerate discoveries that will save lives—now and in the future.

The scientists of America stand ready to serve, and the world cannot risk waiting any longer.

Dario Gil is the director of IBM Research, one of the world’s largest and most influential corporate research labs. He cochairs the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium and is a member of the National Science Board of the United States. 

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