MRSEC program is thus missing a clear opportunity to leverage resources and thereby strengthen the materials research enterprise as a whole.
NSF has encouraged the individual MRSECs to work together as a network of centers that could enhance the program through cooperative effort. Annual meetings of MRSEC directors, as well as less frequent assemblies of education and outreach coordinators, have led to exchanges of best practices and shared concerns; however, there is little evidence of collaborative efforts stimulated by such interactions. Several MRSECs recently have started an NSF-funded effort to develop regional capabilities for shared facilities. This effort is to be commended, but there should be more efforts of this type.
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 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’s analysis shows the MRSEC program to have had important impact over the past decade, about commensurate with that of the individual-investigators program within DMR. By virtue of the intense competition within the community for these centers, the committee concludes that they are perceived to be quite valuable. The chief feature of MRSECs that appears to be unique is their ability to create an environment of group-based research with sufficient scope and resources to foster interdisciplinary research and training of students. Similarly, MRSECs serve as resource centers for carrying out certain “broader impact” types of activities as part of NSF’s mission.
Looking forward, the formulation of the MRSEC program needs to evolve to take advantage of a new generation of scientific progress and discovery. Group-based research has become an established element of the DMR portfolio, and the MRSEC program should focus on empowering small, nimble research groups as well as larger infrastructure nodes with their own competitive research teams. This evolution will help ensure NSF’s position as a leading supporter of the world’s most important materials research.