The Unidata Program receives the majority of its funding from the National Science Foundation. Every five years, the program submits a new proposal to the NSF, outlining past accomplishments and describing plans for future activities.
As Unidata entered the final year of the most recent NSF proposal period, which ended on December 1, 2013, Program Center staff and members of Unidata's governing committees engaged in countless conversations about the future direction of the program. The impact of existing programs, requests from community members for new or augmented services, and prognostications about the future needs of the geoscience educators and researchers all figured into the discussions. The resulting proposal, titled Unidata 2018: Transforming Geoscience through Innovative Data Services, was submitted to the NSF at the end of May 2013.
While much of the work proposed involves the continuation and extension of existing programs, projects, and services, the proposal does chart a new direction for the program; namely the provision of data and services through the "cloud" mechanisms that are becoming ubiquitous. From the proposal:
We have identified some of the challenges universities are facing: shrinking budgets, rapidly evolving information technologies, growing data volumes, multidisciplinary science requirements, and high student expectations. Most faculty and researchers would prefer to focus on teaching and doing science rather than setting up computer systems. These changes are upending traditional approaches to accessing and using data and software; Unidata's products and services must also evolve to support modern approaches to research and education. In this section, we present a vision for Unidata's future that will provide a transformative community platform for collaborative development and an array of innovative data services to our users.
After years of hype and ambiguity, cloud computing technologies have matured. Their promise is now being realized in many areas of commerce, science, and education, bringing the benefits of virtualized and elastic remote services to infrastructure, software, computation, and data. Cloud environments can reduce the amount of time and money spent to procure, install, and maintain new hardware and software, reduce costs through resource pooling and shared infrastructure, and provide greater security. Cloud services aimed at providing any resource, at any time, from any place, using any device are increasingly being embraced by all types of organizations. NOAA, NASA, and other federal science agencies are establishing cloud computing services. Universities are no exception; the University of Washington, University of Illinois, Cornell University, and George Washington University are some of the universities that have already set up cloud services for scientific and academic computing.
The NSF convened a panel of reviewers to evaluate the proposal in late September. The panel's work was delayed by the U.S. government shutdown, but the UPC learned at the end of October that it had recommended to the NSF that Unidata's proposal be funded. In mid-November, the NSF officially approved the Unidata proposal, creating a mechanism for funding the program for the next five years.
The UPC has recently received copies of the comments from the panel reviewers (who remain anonymous). The reviewers were quite enthusiastic about the ideas presented in the proposal, and about the program itself. The following are excerpts of the comments forwarded to the UPC.
- Unidata has made a remarkable contribution to atmospheric science — so much so that it would be difficult to imagine the atmospheric science community without Unidata. As noted in the proposal, Unidata admirably addressed its initial charge to make real-time weather data available to universities, and, over the close to 30 years it has been in existence, Unidata has both anticipated, and reacted to, new challenges and needs in an effective and impressive manner.
- In summary, I find the proposal to be an exceptional, thorough, proposal. If funded, it will continue to allow Unidata to be a tremendous asset to the geoscience research and operations community, while also innovating cyberinfrastructure and allowing geoscientists to begin working on so-called 'grand challenge' problems through collaborating with scientists in related disciplines.
- The Unidata proposal lays out a plan to maintain most of its current support for the geosciences and introduce new, innovative ways to make use of the cloud computing concept. By moving some services more fully to the cloud, the proposed activities will likely increase overall research efficiency and make it easier for a broad range of users to benefit from Unidata services. The details about how Unidata will make use of cloud technology are vague, but this is definitely the way that user services are going. It is important for Unidata to maintain its current role in geosciences support and augment this role with innovative new approaches to community-wide issues.
The UPC staff is gratified to receive comments like these, and is looking forward to continuing and building on the program's work. In the coming months, we hope to begin laying out a more concrete picture of how we think the Unidata community can benefit from the distributed data technologies that are becoming more and more prevalent. We'll be asking for your ideas and feedback, so stay tuned.