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Enviro Scientists Call on Comp Scientists to Bridge Gap in Solving Np-Hard Problems

Karen A. Frenkel

Panelists at Cornell University's first conference on computational sustainability acknowledged a gap between environmental scientists and experts on computational complexity that has caused some scientists to simplify problems and limit their models. But there was optimism that communication between the two groups would help.

Ken Williams of the U.S. Geological Survey said, “The issue is to make smart decisions recognizing the consequences of actions. We work on big, complicated problems. Our ability is limited institutionally, conceptually, and computationally.” We are “bedeviled” because problems may be framed inadequately, scientists are dealing with structural uncertainty, and often we can’t observe resources we are studying. Given that, “I came for help on how to proceed,” said Williams, “and many talks here gave me great hope. There’s a massive increase in computing power and the challenge is to harness it for our class of problems.” We need to look for a marriage between computing power with thematic content intelligently framed in a way that provides hope that our children can experience our natural heritage.” The audience applauded.

But there are problems attracting computer scientists to this domain. They have already solved some of the computing problems many environmental scientists need help with. And, as one participant told me offline afterwards, they cannot produce original work and get published in hot journals if they devote their time to this area. So the planet can go to Hell because people need to publish or perish?

Then there’s the problem of money. Why can’t the U.S.G.S. hire the needed computer scientists with the appropriate expertise in say, computational complexity or decision support systems, to work with their scientists? That comes down to money and politics. Congress is not likely to appropriate funds for that because of redundancy. A senator is likely to say, “There are such experts at X University. Why should I fund that again? Go to them.” 

Karen A. Frenkel writes about science and technology and lives in New York City. Here’s her website.


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