questionnaires to and telephone interviews with NSF and university personnel, and visits to current, former, and would-be MRSEC sites. Four working subcommittees, which often met independently, addressed issues of research, education and outreach, industrial outreach, and facilities and management. This Overview presents the outcome of this study and serves as a map to the more detailed exposition that follows in the body of the report.

The MRSEC technical agenda is the study of materials. Materials are the “stuff” that things are made of.1 We recognize the importance of the development and use of new materials in the history of humankind by identifying key periods in that history by the materials used, as in the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages. Frequently, the most exciting and important advances in materials science and engineering occur at the interfaces between, or by unconventional combinations of, traditional disciplines. This interdisciplinary research is carried out by scientists and engineers with training and backgrounds that include physics; chemistry; materials science and engineering (including the more traditional disciplines that focus on metallurgy, ceramics, and polymers); mathematics; electrical, chemical, civil, and mechanical engineering; and, increasingly, the biological sciences. Often, teams of researchers must be assembled to make progress on complex problems. This group process may occur in a “natural” way, following from the traditional modes of scientific exchange, or it may be induced by organization of the research environment through laboratory structure (typical of industry and some federally funded laboratories), geography (proximity of research groups, strategically placed common areas, and so on), and funding mode (group research programs of various types in several funding agencies). Collaborations may be formed around the conception or execution of research; different modes of collaboration are stimulated differently.

The first serious effort to induce group activity in academic materials research occurred when NSF assumed responsibility for the IDLs in 1972. Searching for some structure that would distinguish these block-funded, locally managed entities from the NSF-funded individual research on similar topics, NSF instituted the idea of Materials Research Laboratories (MRLs). MRLs consisted of a number of “thrust areas,” each of which was to be focused on some broad problem requiring a multidisciplinary team of researchers. At this time NSF also created the overall materials management unit known as the Division of Materials Research (DMR).2

Focused research in areas of particular complexity that required a team of scientists in different disciplines became more and more common in the 1970s


This observation has often been attributed to Paul Fleury, now dean of engineering at Yale University.


For further reading about this period in the history of materials research, see National Research Council, Materials Science and Engineering Through the 1990s, Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1989.

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