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New Met Office supercomputer proves reputation is everything

April 17, 2012

Super cash required for supercomputer at the Met Office

Here’s a science funding announcement that almost flew by like a sparrow in a hurricane: £60m for a snazzy supercomputer at the Met Office.

While the new toy was originally recommended by the Commons science and technology committee to improve weather forecasting, the government appears to have made the purchase on behalf of the UK’s international prestige in climate research. The supercomputer will join the Hadley Centre, a largely government-funded institute focused on climate science.

Most readers of this blog will be aware that weather is what happens to us every day, while climate occurs over much longer periods of time. It is the difference between a football match and an entire championship: a bad game does not necessarily lead to a poor season. So why might the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) have made this communications comb-over?

The answer is our reputation. As environment minister Lord Taylor rightly points out: “The world-class research of the Met Office Hadley Centre has established the UK as a real authority in understanding the challenges of climate change.”

The installation of a new supercomputer at the Hadley Centre is described in the DECC press release as “fundamental” to modern research that requires extensive data crunching. David Willetts, minister for universities and science, added: “This investment will keep the UK at the forefront of climate science and modelling, underpinned by the leading knowledge and expertise of the Met Office.”

But after hearing lots of evidence and producing a report, the select committee had recommended a supercomputer for weather forecasting. Here’s what committee chair Andrew Miller said: “It is of great concern to us that scientific advances in weather forecasting and the associated public benefits—particularly in regard to severe weather warnings—are being held back by insufficient computing capacity.”

Miller’s complaint appears to have vanished like spit in the rain. Meanwhile, the DECC has taken the essence of his committee’s recommendation (“buy a supercomputer!”) and repurposed it.

The supercomputer is undoubtedly good news for climate science, and the UK’s international reputation in that field in particular, but the announcement causes one to wonder whether this is funding for science or for face.

Image courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory.

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