techUK's Farzana Chowdhury writes about how government, industry and academia need to work together to ensure that opportunities within HPC are joined up. For techUK's #FutureofCompute Week 2022
High performance computing (HPC) provides organisations with the opportunity to drive scientific, industrial and societal advancements. As technologies such as cloud computing, artificial intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) grow, the amount of data that businesses have to process has increased exponentially. HPC is becoming crucial for organisations to utilise to have rapid and reliable IT infrastructure to process, store and analyse vast volumes of data. It is now an indispensable asset to the digital economy and will significantly contribute to global GDP.
Whilst the UK is a global leader in a number of computer domains, such as AI, cybersecurity and software development, HPC infrastructure remains to be an area that is lagging behind other global economies. Furthermore, the window of opportunity for the UK to remain competitive is closing; whilst the EU, USA, China and Japan are implementing exascale systems, the UK's HPC capacity has shrunk by three-fifths over five years, falling to 2% in 2019. There is also a risk that insufficient IT infrastructure will stunt the growth of other technologies, for example AI and quantum, both of which have been highlighted in current government policy as key pillars of the UK's science and technology ecosystem.
A critical prerequisite to transforming the UK's current position on HPC is addressing the skills gap. There is currently a shortage of skilled HPC professionals in the UK which will ultimately limit the supply of HPC capacity. This can be attributed to the lack of understanding regarding career pathways into HPC, as well as the high barriers to entry. Through addressing these challenges within skills, we should also be mindful of diversity and inclusion in order to foster equal opportunities and a more robust workforce. Whilst this is understudied in the HPC field, it has been found that there is a lack of diversity in the research software engineering workforce with only 15% being women and 5% from ethnic minorities. Greater investment needs to be placed on upskilling talented individuals to address these barriers and promote inclusivity.
How do we bridge the gap?
There is a paucity of public studies that have examined HPC careers in the UK, which means that there is a general lack of understanding around the skills that are needed and the routes to enter the profession. How can we prepare for the future of compute if we haven't thought about the means through which talented individuals can lead that change?
A thorough review of job security, salary structures and opportunities for progression could be a valuable step to understand how talent can be retained. Furthermore, expanded educational programmes, including apprenticeships and professional training courses could increase accessibility to the sector and create career pathways for HPC. We should also promote diversity in the workforce by targeting any efforts to groups that have been historically underrepresented in the sector.
In order to facilitate these efforts, a long-term strategy for compute, such as the Future of Compute Review by DCMS, could emphasise skills as a priority area and ensure that the supply of specialists meets demand. With this, it is imperative that government, industry and academia work together to ensure that opportunities within HPC are joined up. The UK already has some examples of collaborative schemes that promote upskilling enthusiastic individuals in emerging technologies. For example, the postgraduate conversion AI masters courses have enabled graduates to undertake further education, even if their undergraduate course is not directly related. This has enabled over 2,500 people to develop new digital skills or retrain to help them find new employment in the UK's cutting-edge AI and data science sectors. Equally, the combined University of Bristol and NQCC courses is a key example of academia, government and industry to work together on education programs to upskill the current workforce and enable them to become aware of the opportunities quantum will bring.
The success of initiatives pertaining to skills in other emerging technologies, particularly AI, could be attributed to how heavily it has been prioritised across industry, government and academia. Comparatively speaking, HPC has not had the same level of attention as other domains. Skills is a key enabler to invest in the long-term needs of the AI ecosystem within the government's National AI Strategy; a 10-year plan to bolster the UK's position as a global leader in the field. Expressing a similar sentiment for HPC skills could reap long-term benefits for the future of compute.
The long-term benefits of growing HPC in the UK is clear. Now we must bring together government, industry and academia to bolster the volume of the HPC workforce by investing in opportunities for talented and enthusiastic individuals. A lack of investment will undermine the substantial growth that we have seen in other emerging technologies. It is up to us to bridge the gap by empowering others with the skills they need to be the leaders of tomorrow.
Future of Compute Week 2022
During this week we will deep-dive into a number of themes that if addressed could develop our large scale compute infrastructure to support the UK's ambitions as a science and technology superpower. To find out more, including how to get involved, click the link below