Cutting-Edge Digital Infrastructure is Essential for Innovation
By Dugan O’Neil, Compute Canada’s Chief Science Officer
Detecting and treating diseases such as Cancer and Alzheimer’s, understanding the human brain, engineering advanced materials for new batteries, discovering the Higgs Boson, and forecasting climate change all have something in common. They all rely on digital infrastructure to get the job done.
In our heavily connected world, researchers in fields as varied as human health, climate science and subatomic physics all use advanced research computing. Indeed, they couldn’t do their work without this technology that exists within a robust system of digital infrastructure.
“And what is digital infrastructure?” one might ask. Think of it as you would any kind of infrastructure — the tracks on which the train travels, the power grid that keeps our homes running, the highways we motor every day, the bridges and tunnels that carry you from Ottawa to Gatineau and the communications networks that help us stay in touch and informed.
Canadians, and their governments, recognize the value in building and maintaining traditional physical infrastructure. And in exactly the same way, governments need to vigilantly maintain and grow our digital infrastructure. Both types of infrastructure are critical to the modern way of life.
Digital infrastructure was key, for example, in giving Canada its piece of the Higgs Boson discovery glory. Our contribution involved not only building pieces of the particle detector used to record the data, but also providing the advanced research computing resources needed to find the particle within that data. TRIUMF and Compute Canada advanced research computing resources enabled 40 faculty members and 150 Canadian researchers to be leaders in this amazing international investigation and discovery.
Medical imaging and genetic sequencing are two of the big drivers for the incredible growth in demand for data storage and digital infrastructure. Datasets in some medical fields are doubling in size every year while some are doubling every three to four months. Other fields of study that rely on these systems include mining, energy, aerospace, drug development, medical and clean technologies.
It’s worth noting that computing capacity in the top countries has been growing far faster than the number of researchers, simply because it must. While large scale computing has long been a critical tool for researchers like me (I am a subatomic physicist), the need for this kind of infrastructure has spread rapidly across research disciplines in both the public and private sectors. Today, it is difficult to fathom a research programme which would prosper without access to digital infrastructure. Further, as scientific instruments improve and computing power grows, individual researchers tackle more complex problems. One researcher’s complex problem might be to accurately predict landfall for a hurricane, while another’s is to design a better drug to treat a specific disease, but both rely critically on the same infrastructure to solve it.
Canada needs to increase its commitments vastly from where we are currently just to keep up. We need to double our digital infrastructure capability ever year to attract and retain the best researchers and thus stay at the cutting edge of innovation. The world’s best scientists come to play in the digital sphere but if that playground doesn’t have the right equipment, why would they bother?
There are further compelling arguments: Having cuttingedge digital infrastructure creates high-end jobs in very hightech environments, further spurring the economy. The people trained on this cuttingedge infrastructure have skills which cross sectors and disciplines. I have met mathematicians studying crime data and particle physicists studying cancer.
Compute Canada works in partnership with our regional organizations, and research institutions. Our model makes these precious resources accessible on nearly every campus across Canada; from dedicated expertise for researchers, to ensuring our national platform meets the needs of science and innovation across the country. Our experts not only bridge the gaps between researchers and the infrastructure they need, they also transport solutions from one type of research to another, breaking down silos and spurring innovation.
There was no need for train tracks before the invention of the train, there was no need for gas stations before the invention of the automobile, and 30 years ago nobody was concerned about broadband internet access and the quality of our cell phone networks. The infrastructure we need to compete is changing. We need to recognize that access to cuttingedge digital infrastructure is essential in enabling Canadians to innovate and be leaders on the world stage.
Dr.Dugan O’Neil is Compute Canada’s Chief Science Officer and a Physics Professor at Simon Fraser University. Dr. O’Neil is part of the team of physicists working in Switzerland who discovered the Higgs boson in 2012. The Higgs boson is a basic building block of the universe, responsible for giving mass to fundamental particles. After first discovery of the Higgs boson, Dr. O’Neil’s SFU team were then leaders in proving that Higgs bosons can decay to fermions (matter particles). Dr. O’Neil is also a specialist in advanced research computing and is passionate about ensuring researchers across all disciplines and regions in Canada have the necessary digital infrastructure to tackle today’s scientific grand challenges.
Originally published in the November 24th issue of The Hill Times.