Onorato talks economics, education

John Manganaro | June 22, 2010

What do super computers have to do with gubernatorial politics?

Plenty when you’re… What do super computers have to do with gubernatorial politics?

Plenty when you’re campaigning in Allegheny County — home to Pitt, Carnegie Mellon and their joint research venture, the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center.

Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato spoke at the supercomputing center Tuesday in front of a crowd of about 60, comprised of mostly PSC staff and journalists. He addressed one of his usual campaign topics  — translating Pittsburgh’s economic success in technology, education and green jobs to the whole state — a pitch he has repeated often since the start of his campaign against state Attorney General Tom Corbett.

The speech, held in the supercomputing center on South Craig Street, demonstrated the county executive’s knowledge of public policy and lawmaking.

“We need to stay focused on the sciences and mathematics, on training the teachers’ teachers,” Onorato said. “Organizations like this are a big reason Pittsburgh has survived the recession in relatively good shape. We’ve downsized the [county] government and focused on state-of-the-art industries and facilities like this one under my watch. That needs to happen at the commonwealth level.”

After watching a number of short 3D presentations given by scientists about what the center is doing to improve green technologies, Onorato fielded a range of questions from the crowd before heading to another campaign event.

“We’re busting with educational resources,” Onorato said. “We need to keep that in mind as we work on the state budget and every other issue. Education and research cannot be lost. That much is clear, even in the muddy waters of Harrisburg.”

Onorato wasn’t the only one asking for support during the early afternoon event. The supercomputing center, which has emerged as an authority on “clean coal,” neurochemical research and other topics, is looking to increase its state appropriations to $1.5 million per year, “in order to assure its performance as Pennsylvania’s premier consulting, training and networking computer facility,” according to a release put out by the center.

That request comes after a two-year slide in state and federal funding levels for the PSC. In the 2008-09 fiscal year, appropriations fell to $700,000. This year funding has fallen to $180,000.

The cuts caused the center to reduce or eliminate activity in a student internship program and a program that provides free high-performance computer time to local educational institutions.

Nathan Stone, a senior research analyst for the center, said the loss of these programs is extremely disheartening and detrimental to the overall function and purpose of the supercomputing center.

“Here at the PSC we are involved in vital research about the spread of disease, like H1N1, and research about how to better utilize clean coal technology,” Stone said. “We need the funds to make these kinds of studies larger, to model clean coal plant function, from the molecular level of burning coal to the productivity of the whole factory.”

Stone’s assessment might be right. Earlier work by the center led to breakthroughs in the understanding of hepatitis C, deep water ocean currents and Brownian motion — the seemingly random motion of subatomic particles suspended in a liquid — to name a few.

“We need the money to leverage additional federal dollars as well, and we can’t get that money without a larger contribution from the state,” Stone said. “Times are hard. We understand that, but our work here is not something that Pennsylvania or our country can go without.”