Director Mike Zachar Invited to China to Speak on Computing Services for the Social Sciences

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The world’s best universities often look to one another for successful innovations to emulate. Recently Tsinghua University, China’s premier technical university, looked to the University of Chicago for guidance in the provision of computing services specifically tailored for the social sciences. Having compared different elite U.S. universities, Professor Lan Xue, Dean of Tsinghua’s School of Public Policy and Management and a member of the United Nations University Council, chose to invite Mike Zachar, Director of the U of C’s Social Sciences Computing Services (SSCS), to present his views and experience in a talk titled “Maximizing Academic Outputs in Social Sciences with HPC” at a conference hosted by Tsinghua University on June 16.

In his talk Mike emphasized the necessity of adapting computing services to the unique needs of social scientists and underlined some of the important ways that computing services appropriate for the social sciences differ from those of the natural sciences. With a focus on high performance computing (HPC), Mike discussed several hardware infrastructure considerations including the need for a higher RAM-to-CPU ratio than is typical in clustered computing designs for the natural sciences; ways to optimize the use of commercially available statistical and modeling software applications that are widely used in the social sciences; and the central role of knowledgeable staff in providing seamless hands-on support to both beginning and advanced users. He also touched on the special cybersecurity concerns related to social scientists’ use of sensitive human subjects data. In addition to HPC, he discussed other aspects of SSCS’s integrated support model, including Geographical Information Systems (GIS), the U of C’s Social Sciences Data Archive, and the importance of desktop computer support.

The talk was followed by a question and answer session. Professor Xue asked what other universities can do to emulate the successes of the University of Chicago’s SSCS. Mike responded that computing services in the social sciences should serve to provide a platform that minimizes the time and effort required to take an idea to its fruition in the form of new knowledge. Computing services for the social sciences need to be quick to adapt, optimizing hardware, software and end-user support to respond to techniques that world-class researchers pioneer. Designing systems that can integrate changes quickly with minimal disruption is key. As a starting point, it is essential to put together a team of IT experts who specialize in different aspects of computing support and to facilitate close collaboration among them so as to maximize for the end user the security, availability, and ease of use of computing resources. This tight collaboration between specialists in different areas of computing support -- desktop support, HPC, GIS, and Data Archive -- provides a seamless support system for end users. By not having to become their own project managers to get the computing solutions they need, researchers are free to focus exclusively on their research. The goal, then, of this integrated support model is to minimize the time needed for discovery and resulting impact. The talk was well-received and ended with the promise of further cooperation.