The increasingly central role of computing demands a capable and committed workforce. Although the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has several programs aimed at filling critical gaps in the current workforce, forward-looking investments must be made to envision and support the desirable Advanced Simulation and Computing (ASC) workforce of the future. Many workforce issues faced by NNSA will be faced by the U.S. computing industrial base, and therefore competition for appropriately skilled workers will be intense.
Labor market volatility has been in the news for several reasons lately. In a post-COVID world, there are new perturbations in the job market, with workers reassessing their relationship to, and expectations for, work. At the same time, millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) are changing jobs every few years,1 making it harder than ever to recruit and retain talent in general, but especially in computing.
NNSA laboratory positions require a substantial ramp-up, both owing to the clearance process and because they require cross-disciplinary expertise. The ASC workforce draws and will continue to draw on highly skilled talent across computer science, computational science, mathematics, engineering, and the physical sciences. While recruiting in all areas is a challenge, data for computer science is used as an exemplar.
1 A. Adkins, 2022, “Millennials: The Job-Hopping Generation,” Gallup, December 27, https://www.gallup.com/workplace/231587/millennials-job-hopping-generation.aspx.
There is a dramatic increase in the fraction of PhDs who specialize in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (Figure 4-1). For example, data from the Computing Research Association indicates that between 2010 and 2019, AI-related PhDs have increased from 14.2 percent to 23 percent of the total, while software engineering, computer architecture, programming languages, and scientific computing all saw a drop. Furthermore, an increasing fraction of U.S. computer science PhDs are awarded to international students.2
This changing demographic of computer science expertise, combined with the fact that a large fraction of emerging talent is choosing to go to industry, provides a smaller talent pool for high-performance computing, scientific/numerical computing, software engineering, and hardware/architecture.
FINDING 4: NNSA’s laboratories face significant challenges in recruiting and retaining the highly creative workforce that NNSA needs, owing to competition from industry, a shrinking science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) talent pipeline, and challenges in hiring diverse and international talent.
2 S. Mishra, 2021, “The AI Index: Emerging Trends in AI Education,” Computing Research Association, May 21, https://cra.org/crn/2021/04/the-ai-index-emerging-trends-in-ai-education.
FINDING 4.1: The ASC program currently faces a challenge maintaining a competitive workforce; this challenge will continue to grow because of pipeline issues (small number of U.S. citizens going into graduate-level STEM fields), industry competition, and emerging computing talent choosing not to focus on scientific computing.
With a limited talent pool, recruiting and developing a diverse population is more and more important. Not only is it critical in terms of filling needed workforce positions, but also, teams composed of individuals from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences help facilitate progress in all areas.3 According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Pew Research, the diversity in computing jobs is improving, albeit very slowly.4 At current rates, it will take more than 100 years to see balanced representation.
In the past, workforce gaps have been filled by international talent, but that too is changing. From the National Science Board:
The US has long been a magnet for top international STEM talent. This feature has been crucial for America’s S&E [science and engineering] enterprise, both because international students and workers bring valuable knowledge and skills and because the US has failed to engage enough US citizens in STEM education and careers. Even as the US works to address its domestic talent shortfall, the country must continue to attract talent from around the world.…
While the US has tended to take foreign talent for granted, the world has changed. Other countries have learned from the US and are opening their doors to foreign talent, giving the world’s top students an increasing number of options. Furthermore, as other countries invest in their own domestic R&D, internationally mobile S&E students and workers have access to more education, training, and job opportunities in other nations, including in their home countries.5
The NNSA laboratories are experiencing a growing number of barriers in engaging with foreign talent, including restrictions on international collaborations, foreign national visitors, and hiring foreign nationals.6
3 See, for example, D. Rock and H. Grant, 2016, “Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter,” Harvard Business Review 4(4):2–5, and A.W. Woolley, C.F. Chabris, A. Pentland, N. Hashmi, and T.W. Malone, 2010, “Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups,” Science 330(6004):686–688.
4 K. Hendrickson, 2018, “Is Diversity in Computing Jobs Improving?” https://codeorg.medium.com/is-diversity-in-computing-jobs-improving-32f30068b7de; M. Froehlicher, L. K. Griek, A. Nematzadeh, L. Hall, and N. Stovall, 2021, “Gender Equality in the Workplace: Going Beyond Women on the Board,” The Sustainability Yearbook 38–57, https://www.spglobal.com/esg/csa/yearbook/articles/gender-equality-workplace-going-beyond-women-on-the-board; World Economic Forum, 2020, “Global Gender Gap Report 2020” https://www.weforum.org/reports/gender-gap-2020-report-100-years-pay-equality.
5 National Science Board, 2022, “International STEM Talent Is Crucial for a Robust U.S. Economy,” https://www.nsf.gov/nsb/sei/one-pagers/NSB-International-STEM-Talent-2022.pdf.
6 Department of Energy (DOE) Order 486.1A, DOE Policy 485.1A, DOE Order 142.3B.
FINDING 4.2: The U.S. national security enterprise has benefited enormously from the inclusion of global talent but incorporating international scholars in the NNSA community is challenged by important concerns about protecting sensitive information. Failure to balance these risks with the risk of missing the best talent can result in not finding the best candidate for the job.
As a counterpoint,
In 2008, China’s central government announced the Thousand Talents Plan: a scheme to bring leading Chinese scientists, academics and entrepreneurs living abroad back to China. In 2011, the scheme grew to encompass younger talent and foreign scientists, and a decade later, the Thousand Talents Plan has attracted more than 7,000 people overall. For Chinese scientists, the scheme has given them a strong financial incentive to return home. For foreigners, it’s an opportunity to join the Chinese system.7
Last, while NNSA has entirely funded the mission-specific applications in the Exascale Computing Project (ECP) and can sustain those projects as needed, much of the funding for other science applications, co-design frameworks, and general software is from Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR) and has an uncertain future. This includes ASCR funding for team members at the NNSA laboratories in areas such as molecular dynamics, combustion simulation, scientific libraries, and system software, as well as midcareer and senior leaders who have taken on project management roles within ECP. Even if these funding issues are eventually resolved through creation of new programs, the uncertainty itself creates a significant retention and recruiting risk.
Responding to these workforce challenges requires NNSA to proactively pursue several areas of opportunity that address workforce needs in both the shorter and longer terms. The following paragraphs highlight opportunities related to the nurturing and retention of existing staff, strategically growing partnerships, and proactively growing the pipeline.
The first area of opportunity is to increase efforts to nurture and retain existing staff. Given the external context described above, this is an area that requires urgent
attention because it has potential effects on the NNSA workforce in both the short and longer terms. As part of this retention effort, it must be recognized that total compensation for computing experts needs to be competitive. A recent DOE report speaks to these challenges:
Demand for high performance computing, networking, algorithms, and mathematics is high across industries. A strong entry level graduate in computer science will regularly receive a compensation package of salary, bonus, and stock from a hyperscale internet company exceeding $300,000 per year; a principal engineer or research scientist’s compensation can go to seven figures. These compensation rates are many times the amount this talent can earn at the national labs. The demand is driven by the impact that high performance computing has on the profitability and capabilities of these companies, in serving insatiable clickflows, data analytics, and particularly AI/ML computing demands.
For entities that cannot compete for this talent with money, the strategy for successfully competing is offering a differentiated mission and culture, which ASCR can certainly do, particularly with mission: an opportunity to develop the essential tools for advancing science. Talent will be and is motivated by the opportunity to develop tools to understand our universe, our biology, the mind, our climate, and to develop new technologies applying that understanding. Attracting and retaining talented people requires that they feel valued as professionals, connected with their colleagues, engaged in contributing to the science mission goals of ASCR and DOE, and supported in their pursuit of career development opportunities.8
In other words, total compensation goes beyond competitive pay. There are numerous retention incentives that include job satisfaction, making a difference (mission and purpose), respectful treatment, feeling valued, working with talented people on hard problems, work-life balance, trust between employees and management, and opportunities for innovation. Funding fragmentation and being split between too many projects are often cited as a source of stress among laboratory researchers. Furthermore, the conclusion of ECP in 2024 will leave a void for a number of laboratory staff. ECP has provided more than just funding—it has also provided a connected community with a common sense of shared mission. NNSA must recognize these workforce stressors and be proactive in providing an environment that mitigates them.
8 DOE Office of Science, Advanced Scientific Computing Research Program, 2020, “Transitioning ASCR After ECP,” https://science.osti.gov/-/media/ascr/ascac/pdf/meetings/202004/Transition_Report_202004-ASCAC.pdf.
FINDING 4.3: Addressing the challenges laid out in this report will require a nurturing environment that reduces distractions, funding uncertainty, and administrative burdens, while providing employees the time and flexibility to explore areas of interest and do the creative thinking required to solve these problems.
Retention incentives also need to consider a multigenerational workforce. It is common for the laboratories to have employees of three generations working side by side. Accommodating diverse working styles and needs and leveraging the strengths of each generation can be important retention incentives.
A second important area of focus is to aggressively grow the workforce pipeline. The Department of Energy (DOE) has several workforce programs that are key elements of providing needed talent for the future. Continuing to grow and strengthen NNSA participation in these programs is critical for meeting workforce needs over the longer term.
One such program is the Nuclear Science and Security Consortium (NSSC),9 a 5-year program to develop a new generation of laboratory-integrated nuclear experts. The NSSC enables a rich collaborative research environment between universities and the national laboratories, and fosters the development of science and technology underlying the nuclear security mission.
As part of its science and national security missions, NNSA supports students pursuing degrees in a spectrum of basic and applied research in science and engineering. In particular, NNSA seeks candidates who demonstrate the skills and potential to form the next generation of leaders in a number of fields via the DOE NNSA Laboratory Residency Graduate Fellowship program, including mathematics and computational science, especially multiscale and multiphysics theory, continuum numerical simulation, and particle-in-cell/fluid hybrid simulation, coupled with an emphasis on using data from advanced experiments to inform and validate simulations and methods.
The Predictive Science Academic Alliance Program (PSAAP) is a mechanism by which NNSA laboratories engage the U.S. academic community in advancing science-based modeling and simulation technologies:
The PSAAP integrates modeling, simulation, and experiment in a manner that contributes to the nuclear security mission and prepares the next generation of scientists and engineers for careers in national security.
—Dr. Mark Anderson, Assistant Deputy Administrator for Research, Development, Test and Evaluation in NNSA’s Office of Defense Programs.10
10 National Nuclear Security Administration, 2020, “NNSA Announces Selection of Predictive Science Academic Alliance Program Centers of Excellence,” Energy.gov, https://www.energy.gov/nnsa/articles/nnsa-announces-selection-predictive-science-academic-alliance-program-centers.
NNSA investments in academic institutions via basic research funding and academic alliance programs such as PSAAP are key drivers in creating the future workforce. Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows engaged in such research programs have immersive research experiences that hone their specific technical skills, cultivate their broader problem-solving skills, and expose them to the wider scientific and technological community. These graduate students work with collaborators from the national laboratories and from industry partners. They engage in internships. They are immersed in the notion of basic research that targets societal grand challenges together with a culture of rigorous mathematically grounded approaches and a culture of HPC at scale.11 This immersion prepares them to contribute to NNSA’s pressing scientific and technological challenges.
Established in 1991, the DOE’s Computational Science Graduate Fellowship (CSGF)12 provides outstanding benefits and opportunities to students pursuing doctoral degrees in fields that use high-performance computing to solve complex science and engineering problems. CSGF’s specific objectives are:
- To help ensure an adequate supply of scientists and engineers appropriately trained to meet national workforce needs, including those of the DOE, in computational sciences.
- To raise the visibility of careers in the computational sciences and to encourage talented students to pursue such careers, thus building the next generation of leaders in the field.
- To provide practical work experiences for the fellows that allows them to encounter the cross-disciplinary, team-based, scientific research environment of the DOE national laboratories.
- To strengthen collaborative ties between the academic community and DOE national laboratories so that the fellowship’s multidisciplinary nature builds the national community of scientists.
CSGF program fellows exemplify the type of students required to address future NNSA workforce needs: they are inspired by interdisciplinary topics at the interfaces of mathematics, computing and engineering, and scientific applications, and they are deeply committed to addressing the nation’s scientific and technological challenges. The CSGF program thus plays a critical role in ensuring a strong, diverse pipeline of highly trained professionals who remain committed to scientific and engineering domains,
11 K.E. Willcox, 202l, “Accelerating Discovery: The Future of Scientific Computing at the Department of Energy,” https://republicans-science.house.gov/_cache/files/a/5/a5571d1b-2d8e-4d59-93cb-a9a5df4049b0/84E5CD8050480E2D757A77A6CAA3AD8D.2021-05-19-testimony-willcox.pdf.
rather than being lured away by more lucrative positions in commercial and business sectors. Furthermore, the CSGF program is unique among other prestigious national fellowships in the way it proactively shapes its trainees. This is achieved through requirements on graduate courses (and associated stringent oversight), through the required 12-week research traineeship at a national laboratory, and through concerted attention to mentoring and networking.
A consequence of the CSGF graduate course requirement is that the DOE has played an important role in incentivizing universities to create new interdisciplinary computational science graduate curricula that address DOE workforce needs. An expansion of the CSGF program would not only increase the supply of talented students trained at the interfaces of mathematics, computing, and science/engineering but also provide DOE with a key lever to encourage new university programs that respond to pressing scientific computing workforce needs. There is no doubt that demand for those trained through the CSGF program already outstrips supply, and this demand will only increase in the coming years. Further, the pool of highly qualified applicants far outstrips the availability of CSGF awards. DOE could double the size of the CSGF program—perhaps with a component of CSGF focused on NNSA mission needs or on innovative computing post-exascale—and both the demand for and quality of the fellows would remain extremely high.
NNSA laboratory efforts at the K–12 level also help secure the future workforce. Each laboratory works with its local and regional K–12 school districts in a variety of programs, training teachers and engaging students early in the benefits of pursuing a STEM education, including field trips, community science projects, fun with science projects, and internships that range from one day to several weeks.
A third important area of workforce opportunity is partnerships, which play a key role in multiple aspects of workforce needs. There are a number of entities where expanded NNSA partnerships (e.g., through undergraduate internships) could result in increased volume and diversity of the PhD pipeline. These entities include (but are not limited to) the National Society of Black Engineers; the Association for Computing Machinery’s Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing; the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans; the Society of Women Engineers; the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers; the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing; the Emerging Researchers National Conference in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, aimed at underrepresented minorities and persons with disabilities; and career fairs and virtual information sessions at minority serving institutions.
Through these partnerships, the NNSA laboratories should be striving to build relationships with a diverse group of students early in their careers and to play a role in
encouraging these students to pursue PhDs. A particularly powerful tool in this regard is the opportunity to retain employment at a national laboratory while pursuing a PhD. Such programs can be especially important for those from economically underserved backgrounds who cannot financially afford a more traditional PhD path. Expansion of such programs could thus be a valuable tool in helping to grow the diversity of the NNSA computing workforce.
In addition to normal hiring pathways, the laboratories should work to find and attract exceptional minds in nontraditional venues (e.g., review committee members, professors, industrial experts, high-school students) and bring them in with the conscious intent to engage them in mission problems—whether for a week, a summer, a sabbatical, an apprenticeship, an expert’s camp, or a career. In all of these areas, the committee encourages the NNSA laboratories not to work individually or in competition, but rather to formulate strategic cross-laboratory and interagency efforts to collect data, coordinate recruiting, and work with the dimension of diversity and inclusion as ways to improve the workforce.
RECOMMENDATION 3: NNSA should develop an aggressive national strategy through partnership across agencies and academia to address its workforce challenge.
RECOMMENDATION 3.1: NNSA should make concerted efforts to create an environment that nurtures and retains existing staff; more aggressively grow the pipeline; create an efficient and modern, yet secure environment; advertise and grow existing workforce programs (such as the Predictive Science Academic Alliance Program and the Computational Science Graduate Fellowship); and collaborate with other federal agencies to support ambitious talent development programs at all career stages.
RECOMMENDATION 3.2: NNSA should also develop a deliberate strategy to attract an international workforce and to provide them with a welcoming environment while thoughtfully managing the attendant national security risks.