The use of computer simulation in engineering systems began many decades ago. Only in the last decade or so has it become an essential scientific methodology for research and education in nearly all areas of engineering and in many branches of science. There are several reasons for this remarkable progress. First, and perhaps foremost, is the steady advances in computational science that made it possible to vastly extend the range and depth of applications of simulation as a key methodology. Second, almost in all areas of engineering and science, computer simulation has enabled the researchers to study and predict the physical events, as an extension of their theoretical investigations. In many cases, it also provides a powerful alternative to the experimental science when phenomena are not observable or measurements are impractical or too expensive. A third reason is the rapid advances in computer and networking technologies and their associated software innovations that allowed simulation to become a powerful and ubiquitous tool for engineers and scientists. Supercomputing at teraflop/s levels is now readily available at the desktop, either as a dedicated simulation tool or as a shared facility via a high-speed network for collaborative research among researchers at a distance. New, emerging developments in computing, networking, and data storage promise to further revolutionize how SBES will be done in the future.
A recent report by the NSF Blue Ribbon Panel on SBES* recognizes these advances and trends. Among its key findings, the Panel concludes that “SBES is indispensable to the nation's continued leadership in science and engineering” and that “computer simulation is central to advances in biomedicine, manufacturing, homeland security, microelectronics, energy and environmental sciences, advanced materials, and product development”�. In short, future advances in SBES research and education will significantly impact virtually every aspect of human experience. In the same NSF report, the Panel also concludes that, despite our past accomplishments, “our nation's leadership in computational science and engineering, particularly in areas key to SBES, is rapidly eroding”�. This erosion is caused by multiple developments both here and abroad, as documented by the Blue-Ribbon Panel's report and WTEC reports on several other related studies. These developments and trends point to the need for a comprehensive assessment of activities abroad, as a timely, informative data point for formulating a strategic R&D investment plan of our own in the SBE&S area.
This study will use WTEC's methodology of an expert panel to conduct site visits to overseas laboratories where the best work in SBE&S is done. This effort will be combined with the Panel's own research and assessments. The findings of this study will result in deliverables consisting of briefings to sponsors, public workshops, and a final report. Collectively they should provide a comprehensive, peer-reviewed set of evaluations of SBE&S R&D overseas, compared to those in the United States.
There are a number of expected benefits from such a study. One important benefit will come from the process itself. Interested programs across NSF and from other agencies will be working together to better define the field and its needs together. Using the findings of this study and other inputs they can collectively work out a roadmap for future SBE&S research and education. A new strategic vision and level of energy may emerge from the government and research community as a result.
There will be other tangible benefits. For example, the study is a great vehicle to address some of the key issues of critical importance to programs officers and the research community, including:
To obtain the intended benefits, this study will focus on a range of issues whose R&D activities abroad will best inform our own government programs and the research community of the challenges, barriers, and opportunities in SBE&S. The study panel, under the guidance of the sponsors, will be instrumental in helping to develop a definitive scope of the study. As a preliminary guide, technical and strategic topics for this study may include, but are not limited to:
Other topics are possible, if sponsors wish.
Finally, beyond the above technical issues, the study may also address the following non-technical issues:
The above lists of topics will be refined by panel members in consultation with the sponsors at the study kickoff meeting.
* The title of the Blue-Ribbon Panel report is “Simulation-Based Engineering Science”. While focusing on engineering and technology-driven sciences, the report clearly addresses the wider and transformational nature of computer simulation both in and across Engineering and Sciences. The report is available at http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/reports/sbes_final_report.pdf.