Proponents of modeling and simulation all seem to agree that the possibilities within the industry - for jobs, for improving quality of life, for solving complex problems - are virtually limitless.
The puzzle, so far, has been how to realize that potential by actually drawing people into the discipline and getting businesses to see the value in it.
Members of the governor's advisory council on modeling and simulation reiterated the scope of the challenge last month, and the dearth of American workers with skills for such technical jobs.
But, they noted, efforts are under way to address it directly. Not surprisingly, many of those efforts are coming out of Hampton Roads, the commonwealth's hub for modeling and simulation. Officials are trying to blunt the 2011 closure of Joint Forces Command and impending defense-related cuts by redirecting modeling work away from the military, and emphasizing its potential.
John Sokolowski, executive director of the Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center at Old Dominion University, said researchers there created an iPad app, the "M&S Cube," and released it for free through iTunes three weeks ago to broaden awareness of jobs and resources available to students and professionals. The industries range from transportation to agriculture, construction to manufacturing.
Meanwhile, VMASC is working with CBS affiliate WTKR to air TV commercials statewide touting careers in modeling and simulation. In late September, VMASC is set to hold an open house and host a four-day industry conference.
By late fall, Chmura Economics and Analytics is scheduled to release a study identifying industries in Hampton Roads that are prime targets for expanding modeling and simulation.
One of the most obvious is health care, where local researchers are working on projects that could draw national attention by the end of the year. While Eastern Virginia Medical School is looking at whether to merge with the College of William and Mary, its researchers have spent years working with ODU and VMASC on tech-related projects.
The latest is the National Center for Collaboration in Medical Modeling and Simulation. Long title notwithstanding, the center could reshape the way health care providers, manufacturers and medical centers and schools evaluate and shop for technology.
One way, according to Sokolowski, is through a system that serves as a kind of Consumer Reports-style clearinghouse for reviewing simulation equipment used in hospitals and training centers.
Researchers might, for example, identify limitations in mannequins and accompanying software used to simulate surgery patients, whether the technology did what it purports to do and whether students learned more efficiently through one device than another. Findings would be used to inform hospital and medical school administrators and drive competition. Researchers hope to draw support from major medical associations by November or December, he said.
Another effort mirrors the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The project, dubbed "The SimLab," will link academic and industry experts in development of new devices, programs and applications. Officials hope to pull private investors on board within a year, Sokolowski said.
Geoffrey Miller, director of the EVMS Center for Simulation, said researchers there are working toward creating "refresher" apps for physicians, and designers and engineers are developing an app that shows general safe patient-handling tips, such as proper lifting technique.
In the abstract, that app may not sound very appealing to businesses. But the underlying idea applies to anyone, in any industry, who lifts heavy things or works in a place where there is risk of injury. And if development and testing can raise awareness and help reduce workplace injuries, business owners would recognize it as a way to reduce injury claims and save money.
For years, those kinds of possibilities haven't drawn the attention that they should. If VMASC has its way, that is about to end.