Leveraging Advanced Computing for Research & Innovation in New Brunswick

On November 12th, UNB hosted an event aimed at bringing together researchers, industry and funding agencies in New Brunswick to look at what’s being done with Advanced Computing Resources (ARC), and how these tools can be leveraged towards developing new research and education programs.

With the help of federal and provincial funding agencies, UNB brought its first supercomputer online in 2000, augmenting it in subsequent years. ARC has since supported research in engineering, chemistry, physics, forestry, biology, geodesy, computer science and the humanities through the UNB Advanced Computational Research Lab and through the regional consortium ACENET.

Over 50 people attended the forum on the 12th that included researchers from New Brunswick post-secondary institutions, industry representatives, and federal and provincial funding agencies. A series of short initial presentations illustrated the research both currently being done and that potentially could be done using ARC. This was followed by a moderated, open discussion.

The salient points from the discussion are summarized below.

What is the best path forward to leverage ARC in New Brunswick? Where should efforts be focused?

The first point made was that it’s critical that the path and the use of available data be relevant to industry in order to achieve the widest benefit for the province. Along with this, there are many opportunities, but efforts need to be focused on a couple of key areas in order to achieve traction.

Second, governments need to make data available to the public in order to generate creative ideas for new ventures and opportunities in industry.

Third, there is a need to achieve short-terms wins in order to facilitate widespread buy-in. For example, there are productive dialogs on cyber-security happening now among industry, researchers and government representatives in New Brunswick. This is seen a good launching pad that could realize some quick successes.

A number of opportunities were discussed in the context of focusing efforts in areas representing key strengths in the province. Cyber-security offers the particular advantage of being an umbrella for many other research areas. It was pointed out that when speaking of cyber-security, we can’t forget cyber-privacy – an important component that few people or organizations in Canada are tackling. An even broader application to explore might be ‘user behaviour’, encompassing not only cyber-security, but areas such as online gaming for example.

Healthcare is another opportunity that offers cross-disciplinary applications for advanced computing.

Additional areas offered up included agriculture, the environment and forestry. Bio-security, for example, involves both forestry and agriculture, areas in which New Brunswick already has a broad level of expertise.

Fluid modelling was also suggested as a focus, given that it’s an integral part of many research areas and has wide-ranging impact.

Finally, it was suggested that an NSERC Connect grant can help bring industry and researchers together in order to drill down on some of these opportunities identified.

What’s needed in terms of education and training to pursue any of these opportunities?

The first question posed in this part of the discussion was whether generic, or discipline-specific training is required, and at what level skills are needed.

One of the key challenges at the moment is that students graduating are not able to do the types of data analysis needed by industry (for example, user-interface work). It’s currently taking 12 to 18 months for companies to get recent graduates up to speed. Private industry therefore wants to be the catalyst for training and education changes, with the goal of ensuring that students graduating have the skills being sought by industry. In the same vein, companies want PhDs to work with them while still studying so as to encourage them to remain with the company.

The discussion then moved to the need for a shortlist of required skills. One such list has already been generated by a handful of cyber-security companies in the region (available through Sentrant Security’s Allen Dillon). One of the skills on their list is data management, which is needed by both industry and researchers. It was pointed out that post-secondary computer science programs need to be supporting that need. It was also mentioned that one study identified communications as the most important skill for data scientists, and also that there is a need for sector-specific data science skills.

Finally, while it takes some time to make changes to curriculums and launch new training programs, there is an openness to engaging trainers to teach skills in the short term.

What’s needed in terms of technical resources to take advantage of new opportunities?

Four main areas were identified in terms of technical resource requirements. The first is the ability to live stream and analyze data in real time.

Second, it’s important that the bandwidth available in New Brunswick remain at the high end of the services spectrum.

Storage is a third critical component. At the moment global storage capacity can’t keep up with the volume of data being generated, and the gap is expected to worsen.

Finally, data management platforms and abilities are needed to enable growth in the research areas identified earlier in the session.

What’s Next?

The session on November 12th was intended as an opening discussion. Not surprisingly, no silver bullets were discovered. What did emerge, however, were four proposals to take the discussion to the next level.

  1. Organize a second forum to drill down on what changes and tweaks are needed in the education system in order to accommodate industry.
  2. Stakeholders need to more fully understand the resources currently available in New Brunswick, both hardware and human. For example, what specifically, can ACENET/Compute Canada offer, and what are the specifics of the New Brunswick broadband network?
  3. More venues and vehicles are needed to share and understand researcher and industry  initiatives and applications that are happening now. For example, what projects in this domain are researchers working on that could be leveraged with either other researchers or with industry?
  4. We must keep the dialogue going.