6
The Future of National Science Foundation Materials Centers

After its examination of the history of the MRSEC program and its impacts, the committee formed several judgments about the future direction of the program.

PERCEIVED AND MEASURED IMPACT OF MRSECS

Why do outstanding people and institutions pursue Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) grants with all of the associated responsibilities? An analysis of inquiries made of faculty at both MRSEC and non-MRSEC institutions revealed multiple motivations for participation in the MRSEC program.

Conclusion: MRSEC awards continue to be in great demand. The intense competition for them within the community indicates a strong perceived value. These motivations include:

  • The ability to pursue interdisciplinary, collaborative research;

  • The resources to provide an interdisciplinary training experience for the future scientific and technical workforce from undergraduate to postdoctoral researchers;

  • Block funding at levels that enable more rapid response to new ideas, and that support higher-risk projects, than is possible with single-investigator grants;

  • The leverage and motivation MRSECs provide in producing increased institutional, local, and/or state support for materials research;



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement



Below are the first 10 and last 10 pages of uncorrected machine-read text (when available) of this chapter, followed by the top 30 algorithmically extracted key phrases from the chapter as a whole.
Intended to provide our own search engines and external engines with highly rich, chapter-representative searchable text on the opening pages of each chapter. Because it is UNCORRECTED material, please consider the following text as a useful but insufficient proxy for the authoritative book pages.

Do not use for reproduction, copying, pasting, or reading; exclusively for search engines.

OCR for page 162
The National Science Foundation’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers Program: Looking Back, Moving Forward 6 The Future of National Science Foundation Materials Centers After its examination of the history of the MRSEC program and its impacts, the committee formed several judgments about the future direction of the program. PERCEIVED AND MEASURED IMPACT OF MRSECS Why do outstanding people and institutions pursue Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) grants with all of the associated responsibilities? An analysis of inquiries made of faculty at both MRSEC and non-MRSEC institutions revealed multiple motivations for participation in the MRSEC program. Conclusion: MRSEC awards continue to be in great demand. The intense competition for them within the community indicates a strong perceived value. These motivations include: The ability to pursue interdisciplinary, collaborative research; The resources to provide an interdisciplinary training experience for the future scientific and technical workforce from undergraduate to postdoctoral researchers; Block funding at levels that enable more rapid response to new ideas, and that support higher-risk projects, than is possible with single-investigator grants; The leverage and motivation MRSECs provide in producing increased institutional, local, and/or state support for materials research;

OCR for page 162
The National Science Foundation’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers Program: Looking Back, Moving Forward The perceived distinction that the presence of a MRSEC gives to the materials research enterprise of an institution, thus attracting more quality students and junior faculty; and The infrastructure that MRSECs can provide to organize and manage facilities and educational and industrial outreach. These factors suggest that there are strong positive influences of the MRSEC program on the conception of research ideas and the ability to pursue them quickly and effectively, which in turn have clear, positive implications for maintaining and advancing U.S. research competitiveness in the materials field. This observation must be tempered in the context of the current funding situation, in which MRSECs are asked to take on increasing responsibilities without the availability of commensurate resources. Conclusion: The committee examined the performance and impact of MRSEC activities over the past decade in the areas of research, facilities, education and outreach, and industrial collaboration and technology transfer. The MRSEC program has had important impacts of the same high standard of quality as those of other multi-investigator or individual-investigator programs. Although the committee was largely unable to attribute observed impacts uniquely to the MRSEC program, MRSECs generally mobilize efforts that would not have occurred otherwise. MRSECs conduct and publish research with performance characteristics similar to those of other programs. The committee came to believe that MRSECs enable the formulation of some research activities that would not have occurred outside the program. The shared-acilities element of MRSECs has very high value because it represents a significant portion of the National Science Foundation (NSF) investment in midsize facilities for materials research. The MRSEC education and outreach programs clearly benefit from the sharing and pooling of resources; improvements by NSF and the participating communities are needed, however. Although the industrial collaborations that take place within the MRSEC framework are of a character similar to those conducted elsewhere, the activities initiated by MRSECs generally represent efforts that would not have occurred otherwise. The MRSEC program allows NSF, and thereby the nation, to make a different style of investment in materials research: one that couples group-based research with facilities, industrial interactions, educational programs, and so on. Thus, from the standpoint of diversity of funding mechanisms, if the MRSEC mechanism produces equally high quality results, retaining it enhances the resilience of the overall portfolio. The committee formed several other impressions quite strongly as a result of its site visits, testimony at meetings, and in its discussions. The committee was

OCR for page 162
The National Science Foundation’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers Program: Looking Back, Moving Forward unable to construct a method for developing quantitative evidence to substantiate these expert judgments, however. Interdisciplinary, group-based research that includes access to facilities that cannot be supported by individual investigators is critical to the progress of materials research.1 “Local management” permits a more flexible and responsive approach to the local environment. Although the MRSEC award is identical in structure at the highest levels across all institutions, the specifics vary widely from center to center. The committee observed that this was primarily because of differences among the campus cultures, university administrations, faculty personalities, and to some extent, state and other local oversight and funding bodies. By delegating authority to each center, MRSECs are better able to take advantage of their local circumstances, including negotiating with the campus or state authorities for in-kind contributions. MRSECs are an opportunity for flexibility not possible in other funding mechanisms. The 6-year funding cycle and seed program promotes basic research that may not show immediate payoff, and high-risk/high-reward research; however, MRSECs appear to be moving toward greater uniformity (in size and topics), and change is usually found only during recompetition. The long-term nature of MRSEC support is a great advantage.2 In addition to funding basic science, which is essential to the progress of the field, graduate students have a 5-year lifetime. The vagaries of support can impede their progress. If science alone were driving the evolution of Interdisciplinary Research Group (IRG) topics, one would expect to have a continuous rate of IRG turnover MRSEC-wide each year. The lack of mechanisms to support the purchase and maintenance of research equipment and the training of students on this equipment is troubling. Instrumentation programs generally support equipment, but not the infrastructure necessary to hold it together. The National Research Council (NRC) report Midsize Facilities: The Infrastructure for Materials Research stresses this point, stating, “A continuing and fundamental challenge facing a majority of small to midsize facilities is planning, securing, and maintaining the long-term infrastructure necessary for productivity 1 See, for instance, National Research Council, Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 2006. 2 National Research Council, Midsize Facilities: The Infrastructure for Materials Research, Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 2006, p. 188.

OCR for page 162
The National Science Foundation’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers Program: Looking Back, Moving Forward and success.”3 As documented in that report’s appendixes, programs such as the NSF-wide Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) program and the NSF’s Division of Materials Research (DMR)-specific Instrumentation for Materials Research (IMR) focus on providing assistance for the acquisition of instrumentation. The committee came to unanimous agreement that a critical strength of the MRSEC program is the relatively autonomous management of each center, so-called local management. The committee believes that by encouraging each center director to steer his or her center toward topics and resources that make optimal use of the local institutional environment, NSF has significantly enhanced the MRSEC program. That is, by encouraging and supporting “local management,” MRSECs have avoided some key pitfalls of the “one size fits all” management rubric. The MRSEC program is unique in its lack of a formal sunset clause; although centers lack certainty beyond the horizon of their current award, they may compete for renewal an unlimited number of times. Although the committee could not document the impact of this policy on the research results of MRSECs, it became convinced that the policy added an important dimension to the overall portfolio of DMR investments. For instance, the fact that some MRSECs are sited at institutions with involvement dating back to the Materials Research Laboratories (MRLs) and the Interdisciplinary Laboratories (IDLs) is not a sign of entitlement. The people, ideas, and tools of 1960 would never win a present-day competition for a MRSEC. These types of legacies are really testimony to the ability to reinvent one’s self and remain competitive. CHALLENGES GOING FORWARD The previous chapters of the report have established the overall value of the MRSEC program; however, they also have raised the critical problem that the evolution of the MRSEC program, both in numbers of centers and in the set of required responsibilities, has not been matched by commensurate funding. The number of MRSECS has expanded from 10 to 26, and the 26 MRSECs of today have a much broader and more diverse mission and scope that mandate educational and industrial outreach. In addition to lack of growth in as-spent funding, essentially every class of direct and indirect research cost has grown. Funding levels have failed to keep pace with this inflating cost basis—whether in the context of student or postdoctoral stipends, tuition rates, or the cost of capital equipment and supplies. The increased number of MRSECs being supported only amplifies the strains. 3 National Research Council, Midsize Facilities: The Infrastructure for Materials Research, Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 2006, p. 188.

OCR for page 162
The National Science Foundation’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers Program: Looking Back, Moving Forward Current MRSECs are smaller in actual and constant dollar terms and are expected to accomplish more than the MRL programs that they replaced. Conclusion: The effectiveness of MRSECs has been reduced in recent years as a result of increasing requirements without a commensurate increase in resources. Increasing the mean grant size is necessary to allow the program to fulfill its important mission goals. In addition to increasing industrial collaboration and education and outreach (EO) responsibilities,4 the number of MRSECs has increased while the MRSEC program has remained at a relatively constant budget level. Average funding for centers, in constant dollars, has decreased substantially in the past decade. Declining funding has been particularly detrimental to building and maintaining the advanced instrumentation necessary for leading-edge materials research. Another decade of similar decreases will undermine the future contributions of the MRSEC program. In flat funding environments, and whether explicitly mandated or not, these embedded cost pressures can only be met through reductions in the scope of the programs. These reductions have come in many forms. First, MRSECs are losing their capacity to develop, manage, and, most importantly, to sustain state-of-the-art experimental and computational facilities for materials research. The loss of this infrastructure will have damaging consequences on the competitive standing of the United States in this critical area of physical science—one that underpins technologies that are critical to both prosperity and national security. The decreasing purchasing power of MRSEC funding—in the context of supported research personnel—must also have collateral impacts on staffing levels. Paradoxically, self-reporting suggests that the numbers of students and postdoctoral fellows supported by MRSEC funding are in fact increasing—doing so even in institutions that are flat-funded over the 6-year term of the grant. This highlights the crucial role that so-called funding synergies (leveraging) have come to play in this program. The MRSEC program neither fully funds nor does it wholly own the creative outputs of its various programmatic components, and yet it continues to justify its existence by contending that it is in some way different from the individual principal-investigator (PI) grants with which it competes for funds. Strains on the MRSEC program have potentially serious consequences. When resources are scarce, risk taking and innovation are the first to suffer. MRSECs 4 An examination of the MRSEC program solicitations and reporting guidelines reveals a number of escalating requirements placed on successful centers. Requirements for activities to recruit and promote workforce diversity, as well as junior faculty development, expanded in 2007; international activities were strongly encouraged in 2004. More important, however, is the impact of increasingly fierce competition for the MRSEC awards. To remain competitive, proposals must promise to do more and more with resources that are steadily eroding through inflation.

OCR for page 162
The National Science Foundation’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers Program: Looking Back, Moving Forward offer a pooling of resources to enable some hedging of bets on creative research with more standard investigations. But when human and financial resources are in short supply (or even fail to grow with inflation during a 6-year award cycle), the less-certain research is scaled back. While the committee did not find persuasive evidence that MRSECs have reached this breaking point, it was clear that some of the smaller centers are struggling. Perhaps the greatest challenge going forward for the MRSEC program is the relative inability to quantify its unique value. The 1976 MITRE Corporation panel failed to ascertain the unique characteristics of the research results enabled by the MRLs (see the section entitled “MITRE Report” in Chapter 2). This present committee has not been able to identify a set of performance indicators for the MRSEC program. This does not suggest, however, that the program is without value. On the contrary, the increasing competition for MRSEC awards suggests that the value is quite high and that it is simply too complex to measure with just a few parameters. This state of affairs is not unusual in science, however: the peer-review system is the most commonly used assessment tool for evaluating past performance and projecting future results. The MRSEC program is thus at a critical point in its history. The current trends suggest that, if left unchanged, the capacities and competencies of the centers will be subject to both relative and absolute decline. Centers will have to be still smaller, operating programs of research that have a lesser reach than the programs of the original Materials Research Laboratory system that they replaced. To the extent that facilities can be supported, they will likely fail to rise either to state-of-the-art levels or the standards being set by global competitors. These trends, if left unchanged, suggest a program that will not be able to make significant contributions to the national portfolio of materials research: a program that does many things, but excels at none of them. A NEW LOOK Although many positive outcomes have been identified in this report, it is the committee’s judgment that the resources are simply too small and are spread over too many centers to enable the MRSEC program to continue to have substantial impact in research, facilities management, and education and industrial outreach. The downside of local management is that NSF has not specified clear, overarching objectives for the program or any of its components (education, industrial outreach, and so on). The overall coherence of the program suffers as a result. MRLs, and later MRSECs, were conceived to be centers where interdisciplinary groups of materials researchers were brought together around enabling infrastructure, including the student and postdoctoral support that would allow them to tackle long-term, significant problems. Despite the substantial leveraging of

OCR for page 162
The National Science Foundation’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers Program: Looking Back, Moving Forward institutional support, only the largest MRSECs have sufficient funds to purchase, maintain, and staff significant shared experimental facilities (SEFs). Student and postdoctoral support levels are now well below one student per investigator, and faculty are discouraged from taking summer salary. Investigators must increasingly combine resources to conduct research at MRSECs, making it difficult to identify “MRSEC research.” The MRSEC program can and must play an important role in the nation’s material research efforts; however, more effective leveraging of funds is necessary. Incremental change will not be sufficient, and the committee proposes here a restructuring of the MRSEC program that will both preserve its original character and provide greater research flexibility. Conclusion: The MRSEC program needs to evolve in order to successfully meet its objectives in the coming decade. To do so, the National Science Foundation must restructure the program to reduce requirements, reduce the number of MRSEC awards, and/or increase the total funding of the MRSEC program while preserving its positive elements. Given the multiple demands on MRSECs, the program has been underfunded for some time, and the situation has been getting worse. One solution is to increase the level of funding of the MRSEC program, perhaps justified on the basis of proposal pressure and the importance of the field to the nation’s economic and strategic security. Whether or not new resources become available, the committee recommends a mix of large, well-funded centers and small, appropriately funded research groups. Recommendation: To respond to changes in the budgetary landscape and changes in the nature of materials research in the coming decade, NSF should restructure the MRSEC program to allow more efficient use and leveraging of resources. The new program should fully invest in centers of excellence as well as in stand-alone teams of researchers. Resources for basic research, especially materials research, have not kept pace with overall economic growth in the past decade. Expectations regarding the range and extent of impacts enabled by NSF’s programs have also changed. And materials research has continued to mature as a discipline. The MRSEC program can be positioned to better facilitate its contributions in the next decade by improving the focus of its resources on targeted, specific objectives and by increasing its flexibility to allow specialization based on individual strengths. The committee developed one detailed vision for achieving these objectives; it is articulated here. The current MRSEC program could be evolved beyond the current model, by which “each center should try to do everything.” Units of the program would be encouraged to focus either on agile teams of group-based research or on larger

OCR for page 162
The National Science Foundation’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers Program: Looking Back, Moving Forward centers of excellence that pair research teams with additional resources for facilities and outreach. In practice, one approach to this is splitting the MRSEC program into two parts: one part of the available funding should be invested in a small number of larger MRSECs called Materials Centers of Excellence (MCEs), with ample infrastructure, and the other part of the available funding should be invested in establishing smaller-scale Materials Research Groups (MRGs). The committee does not want to be too prescriptive, but a first guess might be rough equal parts. A general decline in resources, coupled with increasing requirements, has made it impossible for MRSECs to meet all of the program expectations well; therefore, it makes sense to fund fewer centers at a larger dollar amount per center. MRGs would fund high-quality research requiring less infrastructure and satisfying the usual NSF review criterion for broader impacts. The committee believes that this recommendation is valid even in the favorable event of an overall increase in MRSEC funding. This prototype program structure is described in Tables 6.1, 6.2, and 6.3 using the assumption of $30 million per year for the MCE program (perhaps 10 TABLE 6.1 Comparison of the Current MRSEC with the Possible New Materials Center of Excellence and Materials Research Group Programs   Annual Budget Category Existing MRSEC New “MCE” New “MRG” Budget $1 million-$4 million $3 million-$5 million/yr $0.5 million-$1.0 million Equipment $0-$1 million $1 million + yearly operating costs $0.1 million-$0.2 million equipment Review cycle 5 year + 1 year 5 year + 1 year 4 year + 1 year Number of awards 26 total 10 to 12 total 45 to 50 total Number of awards/cycle 11 renew/2 (last cycle)   15/competition Proposal evaluation Preliminary proposal and reverse site visit Preliminary proposal and reverse site visit Panel selection (no reverse site visits) Theme Central theme Unifying theme or facilities Single theme Multi-institutional Mostly single campus Maybe multi-campus Many would be multi-campus to take advantage of expertise Educational outreach (EO), industrial collaboration and outreach (IO) EO/IO required REU required, IO required; can compete for independent EO and/or IO supplements of up to $1 million None required Management Director Director PI NOTE: MRSEC, Materials Science and Engineering Center; MCE, Materials Center of Excellence; MRG, Materials Research Group; REU, Research Experiences for Undergraduates; PI, principal investigator.

OCR for page 162
The National Science Foundation’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers Program: Looking Back, Moving Forward TABLE 6.2 Example of an Annual Budget for a Materials Center of Excellence Category Annual Budget (U.S. $) Facilities Equipment: $1,000,000 Staff: $1,000,000 Maintenance: $200,000 2,200,000 Students and postdoctoral associates (one per investigator) 1,500,000 Outreach (education and industry) 200,000 Seed/discretionary 500,000 Intercenter brainstorming 25,000 Administrative support 100,000 TABLE 6.3 Example of an Annual Budget for a Materials Research Group with Five or Six Investigators Category Annual Budget (U.S. $) Students and postdoctoral associates 500,000 Seed/discretionary 100,000 such centers) and $30 million per year for MRGs (perhaps 50 such groups). The $30 million figures were determined assuming that the MRSEC program needs a minimum of 10 or 11 centers for critical mass. This proposal, therefore, is initially revenue-neutral, but it would support scaling to higher levels of investment. The committee considered drafting a full Request for Proposals as an exercise, but, recognizing the expertise and wisdom of NSF program directors and their formal advisory committees, it chose not to prescribe an explicit framework and so only provides here an illustrative outline of the appropriate level of effort and texture of the two new program elements. Materials Centers of Excellence There is ample evidence that national investment in infrastructure for materials research has been woefully weak for the past generation, and not only in the context of the MRSEC program. Under this proposed new program, approximately half of the budget would go to Materials Centers of Excellence, with program-wide infrastructure concentrated in these centers. The MCEs would have much the same mix of activities as expected for a current MRSEC: excellent and focused research, a compelling interdisciplinary environment for student training, powerful research tools, sustained educational outreach, and responsiveness to industrial needs. By suggesting a concentration of more resources in these MCEs, the committee’s intention is to ensure an appropriate level of funding for this broad and diverse mission. These MCEs would be similar to existing MRSECs, with the

OCR for page 162
The National Science Foundation’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers Program: Looking Back, Moving Forward following important differences: The MCEs would have to provide accessibility and support for researchers from their own institution and from other institutions. MCEs might evolve into regional centers, thus expanding the materials research infrastructure for many researchers, not just those involved in the MCE. While the MCEs would consequently serve partially as user facilities, much as the larger MRSECs already do, they would be required to have a strong research program, ideally a cluster of at least three IRGs. Education and industrial outreach would follow the recommendations made in Chapters 4 and 5 of this report. In addition to a mandatory Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, MCEs would be encouraged to provide research opportunities to others, including faculty and students at primarily undergraduate and minority-serving institutions. A stronger national network of these sites should be established. The proposed award period for the MCEs would be 6 years, as for MRSECs now, and there would be no limit to the overall lifetime. According to the sample budget outlined in Table 6.2, the committee believes that the three-IRG MCEs should have a target annual budget of $4.5 million. Considering the current research and infrastructure portfolio of the present MRSEC program, 10 or 11 MCEs would form a critical mass. Materials Research Groups A second theme of the findings section is that more heterogeneity and flexibility are needed in the types of research groups that should be deployed in materials research. The committee proposes that approximately half of the budget be used to fund collaborative research groups, similar in size and scale to the current IRGs. These groups could be called Materials Research Groups (MRGs) and would consist of three to seven PIs, with a student or postdoctoral associate per PI. The committee’s example MRG budget of $600,000 is shown in Table 6.3. This funding mechanism differs from existing group research mechanisms in that the grant size would be larger than that for a focused research group, and the grant period would be 5 years, with no limits on renewals. This would allow MRGs to tackle substantive and long-term problems, to have continuity over the cycle of students, and to keep the new reviewing demands to a sustainable level. The intention of the MRG part of the program is to diversify the research topic portfolio, increase timely response to new research opportunities, and provide institutions and individuals maximum flexibility in assembling the right team for the problem at hand. MRGs could have investigators from the same institution or from different institutions and could consist of any mix of disciplines appropriate to the research. The committee notes that DMR currently has several mechanisms for supporting collaborative, group-based research at a level between that of individual

OCR for page 162
The National Science Foundation’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers Program: Looking Back, Moving Forward investigators and a MRSEC.5 These include Focused Research Groups (FRGs), Nanoscale Interdisciplinary Research Teams (NIRTs), and modest participation in medium-sized Information Technology Research (ITR) awards. The FRG program is an unsolicited program, similar to individual-investigator programs; these awards involve three or more faculty-level investigators with complementary expertise, the award size is on the order of $250,000 per year or greater, and the activities integrate research and education. Partnerships with industry and other sectors are encouraged. In 2006, DMR supported 33 FRGs, representing an annual investment of nearly $11 million. In 2005, DMR supported 36 active NIRT awards, although this program is being phased out; generally speaking, NIRTs acted as mini-centers and pursued a broad range of responsibilities similar to those of MRSECs. The committee therefore distinguishes its proposed MRG funding mechanism from the existing FRG program in three critical ways. FRG awards are typically for 3 to 4 years. An MRG award would be for 5 to 6 years, enabling a longer-term, and potentially more innovative, investigation. MRGs would be able to encourage “collaboration in conception” of research in addition to “collaboration in execution.” The FRG program is not managed as a distinct budget element of DMR; the proposed MRG awards would be part of the joint solicitation with MCEs. MRGs would represent a key element of the revised MRSEC program portfolio. Competition for MRG awards would directly compare the research of MRGs and that of the MCEs. The MRGs of the committee’s proposal presumably would provide materials departments with the capability of responding more rapidly to developing opportunities. Each MRG would be focused on a general topic, somewhat similar to the IRGs of today’s MRSECs. An MRG could make use of facilities, industrial partnerships, and education outreach resources facilitated by an MCE. However, the competitive review basis of the MRGs would focus on the research agenda. MRGs would even mimic some of the roles of the seed program that the present MRSECs use to invest a limited amount of resources in innovative topics that arise between competitive reviews. In order for the committee’s proposal to be successful (and to represent a step forward from the situation in the early 1990s with MRLs and MRGs), the program 5 According to the NSF grants program guide, “A group proposal is one submitted by 3 or more investigators whose separate but related activities are combined into one administrative unit. A collaborative proposal is one in which investigators from two or more organizations wish to collaborate on a unified research project.” Available at http://www.nsf.gov/funding/preparing/faq/faq_g.jsp?org=DMR#group.

OCR for page 162
The National Science Foundation’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers Program: Looking Back, Moving Forward of MCEs and MRGs must include a unified mechanism for review (both for entry to the program and for renewal). That is, the research elements of the MRGs and MCEs would have to compete directly with one another. This feature is critical in order to allow a level playing field between institutions with centers and those without: funding for research groups should be awarded to the most competitive proposals on the basis of the science alone. Additional resources for facilities and outreach would be awarded through a parallel but separate review process. A potential option to help reduce the load on the peer review community would be for NSF to offer merit-based opportunities to MRGs to renew rather than needing to recompete for the next cycle of support. The trade-off here would be in allowing MRGs a better chance at persistence and requiring NSF program managers to handle the additional workload of organizing and facilitating a full and complete open competition. The committee’s proposal is framed as a transformation of the MRSEC program that would initially be revenue-neutral, converting the roughly $50 million program into a 50/50 split of MCEs and MRGs. It is the committee’s view that this two-pronged solution to the need for materials research centers would greatly enable future growth. Operating as a Whole No two MRSECs are the same, which argues for viewing the MRSEC portfolio as a whole, ensuring that all aspects of research and education are addressed, but not necessarily by each individual MRSEC. NSF encourages MRSECs to operate as a national network so that not only is each MRSEC greater than the sum of its parts, but also the full program is greater than the sum of its individual centers. Although there have been some efforts in this direction, the committee did not observe strong cooperation among the discrete centers of the program. Accomplishing this approach is essential for making the most efficient use of funding. The approach argues for flexibility in the degree of importance placed on the non-research aspects of the MRSEC—for example, education and industrial outreach, the details of the shared facilities, and so on. The committee notes that, viewing the MRSECs as a system: No MRSEC has every component; There is a geographic distribution, including regional availability of particular types of instruments and so on; this arrangement could also allow for a more rational approach to targeting underrepresented minorities in outreach programs, since these populations are not uniformly distributed throughout the country; and There is appropriate sharing among MRSECs of lessons learned and other

OCR for page 162
The National Science Foundation’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers Program: Looking Back, Moving Forward opportunities, as well as leveraging of capabilities, and maybe even some staff for activities such as outreach. Conclusion: NSF encourages MRSECs to operate as a national network. Although some efforts have been made in that direction, the committee did not observe strong cooperation among the discrete centers of the program. The MRSEC program is thus missing a clear opportunity to leverage resources and thereby strengthen the materials research enterprise as a whole. The committee believes that in spite of the competition among centers for success in each cycle of the program competition and in spite of the 6-year time horizon for any one center’s planning, substantial opportunities for synergy exist. Developing a hub-and-spoke model for promoting and sharing access to experimental facilities is one such avenue.6 Furthermore, the opportunities for national networks for education and outreach and industrial collaboration are significant. Moreover, nationally coordinating these efforts of the individual MRSECs might help better define the objectives and procedures for these program elements. For instance, a shared database of effective EO activities and assessment tools would substantially assist new centers in implementing a meaningful program in education and outreach. The committee is not envisioning a whole-scale integration of every center into a consolidated entity but rather improved communication and coordination among them. Modest supplemental grants could assist in organizing joint workshops and enhancing access to industrial partners or shared facilities. Recommendation: NSF should enable its materials research centers to play a greater role in advancing materials research. As centers for teams of investigators, MRSECs could play a natural role in facilitating community formulation of initiatives in materials research. Such activities might include but not be limited to the following: organizing conferences and workshops addressing significant questions in materials research; creating and maintaining a national directory of MRSEC expertise and facilities; leveraging economies of scale in industrial and/or educational outreach; and providing geographically based infrastructure for materials research facilities. The committee notes, however, that this suggested direction for the MRSEC program should not be construed as yet another requirement for the centers. Rather, is it an affirmation of several grass-roots initiatives that have recently taken shape. 6 See National Research Council, Midsize Facilities: The Infrastructure of Materials Research, Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 2006, for details.

OCR for page 162
The National Science Foundation’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers Program: Looking Back, Moving Forward OUTLOOK Interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research will continue to be a hallmark of materials research, and NSF needs to continue to maintain a leadership role in supporting such activity. This committee endorses the concepts embedded in the current MRSEC program, but it encourages a significant realignment of budget, program structure, and management oversight to ensure optimum effectiveness of the NSF group research program in the face of limited resources.

OCR for page 162
The National Science Foundation’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers Program: Looking Back, Moving Forward This page intentionally left blank.