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5 The Center as a User Facility The NIST Center for Neutron Research is a national user facility whose mission is to ensure the availability of neutron measurement capabilities in order to meet the needs of U.S. researchers from industry, academia, and government agencies. The NCNR user community is robust and eager to obtain access to the NCNR facilities, routinely submitting more than 600 proposals per year. In the most recent call for proposals, more than 1,800 days of beam time were requested, corresponding to an average instrument oversubscription of 2.0. The new option to mail in samples for the powder diffractometer is being exercised, providing a good alternative to costly travel and difficult scheduling issues. As indicated to the panel, in 2008 about 800 users came to the NCNR, and the productivity of the instruments was estimated to be more than 50 users per instrument, a figure on par with European sources. Users from universities make up 68 percent of the total, 8 percent are from other NIST laboratories, 5 percent are from industry, and 14 percent come from other national laboratories. The balance of beam time allocation―two thirds of beam time for the user program and one third for in-house instrument use―has been excellent for meeting the needs of users and maintaining outstanding instrument scientists. The flexibility allows NCNR services to be provided to the broad neutron scattering community; to industrial users, who frequently need fast turnaround times; and to users from other NIST laboratories; it also offers rapid access for high-impact scientific research, as well as a means to bring in new users who do not have previous experience in neutron scattering techniques. To further increase the number of industrial users, the NCNR staff lowers barriers to instrument access through the collaborative access mechanism and provides robust support during measurements. Another mechanism for increasing the number of industrial users is through collaborative participating research teams. The PRT involving the Neutron Imaging Facility BT2 instrument has fostered excellent industrial participation and has provided crucial information on the operation of membrane fuel cells. To promote additional industrial interactions, an industry-university-government consortium led by the NIST Polymers Division is being developed to operate the new 10 m SANS instrument as part of the Expansion Project. Current users of the NCNR are highly satisfied with the quality and support of the facility and personnel. The NCNR User Group surveys users approximately every 3 years. The most recent survey, conducted in 2007, included responses from students and postdoctoral researchers, staff members, and external principal investigators. Discussion by the panel with the head of the NUG confirmed that users rate the quality and reliability of instruments and support from the NCNR personnel as “excellent.” The variety of sample environments and ease of proposal submission are also regarded highly by users. Adequacy of office space for visiting scientists and user amenities received relatively lower marks, but these will be improved substantially by the addition of the new office building as part of the facility expansion. The NUG chair noted that more timely and detailed acquisition of users’ impressions from their NCNR facility experience could be obtained by converting the user exit survey to be Web-based. Such a change to a more efficient information collection method would help the facility adjust to perceived needs of the users more quickly. 14
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Other concerns raised by users in the 2007 survey were primarily associated with the availability of specialized sample environments, the need for easy access to their data after leaving the facility (on the World Wide Web, for example), the availability of software and associated tutorials for data analysis, and more time-effective health physics training. In addition, the NUG chair commented that users were apprehensive that the Expansion Project would result in further delays in upgrading the thermal instruments. As noted on the NCNR Web site, a project to modernize the older neutron scattering instruments in the confinement building will be implemented over the next few years (http://www.ncnr.nist.gov/instruments/therminstr.html). Subsequent NRC assessment panels should examine the progress of this plan. To increase the pool of specialized sample environments, the NCNR initiated a Small Grants Program in 2007. One proposal has been funded from the 2008 call. Although previous NRC panels were enthusiastic and supportive of this creative means of increasing the range of ancillary equipment available, it remains to be determined whether this will be an effective method of increasing the sample environment capabilities of the facility. NCNR management should seek out additional schemes for augmenting the ancillary equipment, because often the availability of one or more of these pieces of equipment, rather than neutron flux alone, makes the crucial difference in carrying out experiments in a competitive field. A significant advance in SANS analysis software based on the IGOR-Pro software tool was developed in-house by an NCNR staff member. The 2006 paper detailing the software1 has been cited 60 times, and Web-based video tutorials have greatly facilitated the use of the software, which has also been adopted at other facilities. Similarly, the user-friendly MSLICE data-reduction module is being broadly employed at U.S. and international facilities. Two NCNR personnel also contribute to the analysis software being developed through the Distributed Data Analysis for Neutron Scattering Experiments (DANSE) project. A critical need of users is for well-documented and well-maintained software. NCNR management is to be commended for these contributions to the scattering community. Another noteworthy development is the greater ease of conducting polarized neutron scattering experiments based on 3He flippers. In 2008 more than 20 separate experiments were conducted. Additional growth and expansion to two additional instruments are planned for 2009. A proposal for a deuteration facility has been submitted to the NIST Innovations in Measurement Science Program; the facility would be located at the Center for Advanced Research in Biotechnology, a joint institute of the University of Maryland and NIST. If funded, deuterium labeling may be an especially attractive means of encouraging more biomedical research at the facility. A common criticism of similar facilities is the lengthy time required for safety training. The NCNR, whose safety record has been superb, has taken welcomed steps to further streamline this process while increasing the depth of information for users. Facility access remains a growing challenge. To its credit, in contrast to some government installations whose security apparatus impedes contact with the outside, the NCNR is trying to maintain a rational security program in order to allow efficient use of the facility. Two people are employed to facilitate user access. Foreign visitors are required to apply for permission 35 days before arriving at the NCNR; the 35-day period is on a par with or shorter than the lead time required at similar national facilities. The present system seems to meet all security requirements while keeping the spirit needed in a center of learning. However, this area requires ongoing attention. 1 S.R. Kline, “Reduction and Analysis of SANS and USANS Data Using IGOR Pro,” Journal of Applied Crystallography 39 (2006): 895-900. 15
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The NCNR Expansion Project will greatly affect users during the shutdown of the facility and through the increased scientific capacity after its completion. Because users will be challenged to obtain sufficient neutron scattering time during the shutdown, NCNR management is thoughtfully working on implementing upgrades, transitioning instruments to new beam lines, and implementing new instruments in ways that reflect attention to minimizing the necessary downtime. 16