Today I received an email from the University of Chicago Research Computing Center entitled “Celebrating Ten Years”. The RCC Director is Birali Runesha whose welcome describes its goals. I want to extend my congratulations to RCC and Birali for their excellent work over the past ten years.
I was a frequent visitor at the University of Chicago when the RCC was formed. I was very pleased with the focus of RCC on potential users of computational methods beyond the traditional ones in science, and felt that the RCC could be valuable to economics students.
My first meeting with Birali was arranged by The Econ department who also decided that a UC professor should come with me. Why? I don’t know but apparently the Econ department felt that I needed a chaperone. My strategy was to act in the traditional manner: Birali was a new guy on campus, and he had resources that would be available to people who could demonstrate a need. I emphasized how economics research was limited by the reliance on laptops and that the more powerful computing environments he was going to develop would greatly help economists, particularly graduate students. I made the mistake of not telling my “chaperone” that the purpose of the visit was to be pigs at this new trough. He disagreed with me, saying that he found laptops to be quite useful because one does not have to deal with job queues. I later had more conversations with Birali, but without any “chaperone”.
The RCC computing resources were focused on research. In the 2013 Autumn quarter, I taught my course at UC and asked RCC to allow my students to have access to RCC computers. I did not contact Birali but instead emailed the person in charge of the computers. He was not convinced by my email, so asked to come to my office for a meeting. I started my sales pitch about how powerful computational tools could greatly help economists, but he quickly told me he would be happy to help my students. He told me he had to check me out because some economist in another meeting had said that economists do not need powerful computers.
I have not taught my course since then, but I am on the RCC email list and have been impressed with its programs. You should look through the RCC website to see the kind of valuable work it is doing.
I wish more universities had something comparable to the UC RCC. A few years ago, I had the chance to ask a question of the new Stanford Provost, Persis Drell. I said that the computing resources available to social scientists at Stanford were poor. She agreed and pointed to some efforts to improve the situation. I then mentioned that the RCC resources were free to those who met the usual qualifications. She did not like that idea. I am not aware of anything like RCC at Stanford. Recently I met with a job candidate and asked how he was going to get the computing resources his computationally intensive work required. He had assumed that computing resources would be easy to get at Stanford, the birthplace of Silicon Valley. I reminded him of the saying “The cobbler’s children have no shoes.”
I know that many universities have outreach and support programs like RCC. For example, I have benefited greatly from the generosity of the University of Wisconsin Computer Science Department. My impression is that public universities do a better job at this. If your university does not have good computer support programs for social scientists, I suggest you point your computer science people to the RCC as an example of how get this done.