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1 EXECUTIVE SUMMARY The National Science Foundation's proposed program for Science and Technology Centers at universities can have an important place in the Foundation's portfolio of research support and make significant contributions to science and to the nation's economic competitiveness. To accomplish this will require proper management, adequate resources, and, above all. the selection of programs for which the centers are the most effective form of organization. Great care will be needed to keep the Science and Technology Centers program in proper balance with other modes for supporting U.S. science. Centers have advantages over other support modes for those areas of scientific inquiry that would benefit from formal, sustained collaboration in pursuit of an intellectual objective. Such work may involve one or more disciplines; it may depend upon research facilities or instrumentation large enough or costly enough that their use is best shared. Centers can contribute to the nation's economic competitiveness by advancing the frontiers of knowledge; providing the opportunity for timely exploitation of new discoveries; educating young researchers at the highest professional level to fill university, government, and industrial positions; and accelerating the application of new knowledge to the resolution of economically important problems.
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2 FEATURES OF NSF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY CENTERS The panel believes that centers should have the following features: o Their primary goal is to exploit opportunities in science where the complexity of the research problems or the resources needed to solve these problems require the advantages of scale, duration, or facilities that can be provided only by the center mode of research. They have a set of related research objectives that may entail work across disciplines or within a single discipline. O They are campus-based, led by regular faculty, and integrated into academic programs; there is a tangible commitment to the centers by their home universities. They provide education and research experience for undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, industrial fellows, and others. o Through outreach activities, whose type and scope will vary with the mission of the center, they provide opportunities for intellectual exchanges with researchers in other scientific fields and in industry, government, and other sectors. They may have financial support from non-federal sources, but that should not be a prerequisite. O They display diverse organizational structures, ranging from a center of activity at a single university to a linkage of several centers of activity. 0 They may range widely in size. Typically, their annual cost to the NSF will be from $1 million to $5 million, but may be as low as $500,000 and, in some instances, as high as $10 million. O They have a finite life with stable funding for a period not to exceed nine years.
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3 NSF MANAGEMENT The panel recommends that the Science and Technology Centers program be managed as follows: NSF should maintain a separate budget for Science and Technology Centers administered by a new program office for Science and Technology Centers. The panel assumes that the Foundation will receive proposals for this program annually. o Proposals for centers should have a two-stage review -- an initial merit review of the quality of the proposed research, followed by a review that determines whether the work to be done justifies a center form of organization. 0 Centers should be reviewed by outside visiting committees every three years. CAUTIONS The panel endorses Science and Technology Centers as one valuable mode of research support. At the same time, the panel cautions that o There is a risk that a significant portion of federal funds and university resources will be diverted from the support of individual investigators, especially if the Foundation's budget remains static or declines. In those circumstances, the projected budget of the NSF Science and Technology Centers program should be reduced proportionately. The number of centers should not be increased unless existing centers have adequate resources to carry out their missions. Centers, like other organizations, may in time become resistant to new ideas and unreceptive to new members with different
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4 perspectives and backgrounds. It is easily forgotten that scientific advances flow from dedicated researchers and their ideas, not from institutions. o Interdisciplinary research, although essential for the solution of many problems, should be pursued only when there is a demonstrated need or opportunity, not because of current fashions or the enhanced likelihood of funding. O No single type of center should be allowed to dominate the program relative to other types of centers. o o Science and Technology Centers are only a partial cure for deficits of facilities, staffing, and instrumentation in academic research. The work of centers should not focus on near-term commercial applications to the neglect of scientific advances of greater long-term economic significance. Notwithstanding these cautions, the panel believes that Science and Technology Centers can make significant contributions to science and the nation's economic competitiveness with proper management, resources, and evaluation, provided there continues to be a balance among the principal modes of research support.