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Meet the International Science Reserve, the IBM-led project to prepare the world for future catastrophes

September 29, 2021, 7:00 PM UTC

The COVID-19 pandemic will—spoiler alert—not be the last game-changing global crisis. However, there is a chance that one of its effects will be to better prepare the world for whatever hellish surprises lie over the horizon.

That’s the concept behind the International Science Reserve, in which scientists, companies, and other organizations will get ready to react to future catastrophes, including those associated with the ongoing climate crisis. The initiative is being developed by IBM and the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS), and will be launched early next year.

The International Science Reserve, which will work from the bottom up, being led by scientists and technologists rather than by any particular government—an approach that can naturally lead to politicization—will have two main strands, says Nicholas Dirks, the NYAS president and CEO.

“One is the establishment of a kind of knowledge network, by which I mean we will begin to…track and develop a database of all the different experts and scientific resources relevant to different kinds of potential scenarios of catastrophe,” he says. “The second thing we would do is…engage in readiness exercises or certain kinds of scenario planning, where we would pick a particular [potential] catastrophe and then simulate how we would respond in real time to it.”

The project’s inspiration and genesis can be found at the start of our current pandemic, when a ton of existing computing infrastructure suddenly found a new purpose.

Urgent collaboration

In March 2020, as COVID-19 was beginning to sweep Europe, IBM Research director Darío Gil learned from his family in Spain that his cousin had tested positive. He and his team got in touch with the White House and U.S. Department of Energy and proposed a pooling of U.S. supercomputing resources, so researchers around the world could have the number-crunching power they needed for simulations and modeling in the looming battle.

Within a week, the COVID-19 High Performance Computing (HPC) Consortium was born. American participants include the private-sector likes of Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud, Microsoft and Intel, as well as NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Department of Energy’s national laboratories, and many others. Government and academic organizations from South Korea and Japan are also on board, and the initiative is collaborating with other networks in the EU and Australia.

Over the last year and a half, the COVID-19 HPC Consortium has helped more than 100 research teams do things like develop treatments, devise ways to safely share ventilators between patients, and model aerosol flows to better understand how the disease spreads.

There are now two plans of action that aim to build on the cooperation displayed over the past 18 months. One is to formalize the consortium into a National Strategic Computing Reserve that could provide technical firepower when future crises arise—this plan is “moving along in due course,” says Mike Rosenfield, IBM Research’s head of strategic partnerships. The other is to extend the concept beyond the computing arena. This would be the International Science Reserve.

Gil sees these proposed developments as analogous to the creation of other institutions in the various dramatic contexts of the last century: the National Science Foundation in the wake of the Manhattan Project; NASA and DARPA during the Cold War.

“One of the lessons we’ve seen is the way scientists and engineers have collaborated in the context of this pandemic, across boundaries and across institutions, has been really fundamental [to] the response and how we make progress,” he says. “Long gone are the days when you say the answer to the pandemic is going to all take place within the WHO or the CDC…What is really evident is it requires so many of us working together collaboratively.”

“The point of [the International Science Reserve] is not to stand up a huge organization, but to make this into a network that is nimble, that is heavily annotated with knowledge and connections, then to actively engage discrete groups of partners to simulate what we might do in the event of something terrible taking place,” says Dirks. “The idea is to learn from the pandemic—not to let these lessons be shelved in an archive, but actually to keep them activated—and to use the idea of a reserve, with the readiness that implies, to prepare for any number of things that might happen in the future.”

Climate crisis

As for what those things might be, there are many possibilities. As Dirks points out, another pandemic could appear, but perhaps this time featuring a waterborne pathogen that requires very different responses. Cyberattacks could take out transportation or energy grids. Asteroids could threaten the Earth.

And then, of course, there’s the climate crisis that is already unfolding across the world.

“We’re all aware it’s ongoing and escalating, and it’s going to be episodic and cumulative at the same time,” says Dirks. “Given what we seem to know already, I imagine a larger and larger component of what we’re doing will relate to the climate emergency.”

According to Gil, the bottom-up nature of the reserve concept—where scientific and academic communities harness the power of the network—will make it particularly useful in tackling the climate crisis.

“If you look at the next generation of scientists in universities and everywhere else, you’re seeing climate change and the need to address it is number one on the priority list,” says Gil. “Tapping into that energy and that desire for action is something that we feel…is very conducive to good outcomes.”

The NYAS board approved the International Science Reserve concept in late spring, and Dirks, Gil and their colleagues have spent the summer developing the idea and its likely structure. They are currently starting to reach out to prospective founding partners—in industry, government and other organizations—and hope to have everything ready in the first half of 2022.

Once the reserve is up and running, it will probably have some kind of public-facing aspect, Dirks says—though he worries about feeding the dystopianism he sees taking hold in popular culture and among the younger generations.

“One has to maintain a lively sense of hope and possibility in order to begin to address in real time what can be addressed, both in terms of reducing carbon outputs, and working towards ameliorating everything from levies in New Orleans to developing drought-resistant crops in large parts of the world affected by growing desertification,” he says. “We’d certainly want to share with the public the results of some of the readiness exercises we do, because I think we’ll learn a lot from those exercises, but I suspect we won’t create a Doomsday Clock of our own.”

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