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5 The Center as a User Facility The NIST Center for Neutron Research is a state-of-the-art facility that serves a wide range of national and international needs regarding various aspects of neutron-based science and technology. A primary purpose of the NCNR is to foster scientific research by users from universities, industry, and other national laboratories and across myriad disciplines, including condensed-matter physics, materials science, chemistry, biology, several types of engineering, and fundamental neutron science. The NCNR plays a leading role in developing new measurement techniques along with offering access to state-of-the-art instrumentation that serves basic and applied research needs, while addressing critical technological needs. The overall NIST mission—“to promote U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life”8—is evident in the breadth of the neutron science program at the NCNR, including both scattering and neutron physics, with U.S.-based and international users. The NCNR is an island of stability in the U.S. neutron science scene. One reason for this stability is the empowerment of local leadership over two decades to mold the program into a true user facility without dissipative oversight. Empowerment may be a cultural value within the Department of Commerce; it is nonetheless true that alignment of NCNR to the NIST mission has established a high level of trust. As an example, the NCNR is recognized as an international user facility because NCNR management has had the freedom to optimize the NCNR’s scientific program irrespective of the institutional origin. In 2011, the NCNR offered a total of 4,272 instrument days through peer- reviewed proposals, which far exceeds the total instrument days offered through peer- reviewed proposals by any other U.S. neutron source. The number of proposals has risen over the past 20 years, with a near-record total of 357 proposals submitted in response to the most recent call. Overall the oversubscription rate is 2.2, and while there is clearly some variation among instruments, this figure has remained approximately constant over the past 5 years. The number of NCNR participants continues to grow, with the 2,290 researchers in 2011 originating from every research sector: NCNR, other NIST laboratories, universities, other government agencies, and industry. The diversity of the participant base is one of the unique strengths of the NCNR, supported by the flexibility of the instrument suite, by the commitment of the NCNR staff to education and reaching out to new users, and by the NCNR’s favorable location. University participants remain the largest cadre, and the usage modes include long-standing collaborations with the University of Maryland and the University of Delaware, for example, as well as participation by researchers from other respected U.S. universities. The NCNR’s ability to meet the research needs of committed neutron-scattering users as well as those of more casual users is key to its continued success, and this mix should be preserved as the 8 See http://www.nist.gov/publicaffairs/mission.cfm. Accessed June 16, 2011. 21
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NCNR moves forward. It is significant that the number of NCNR participants has not changed in the past few years, despite the growing user base of the SNS. The quality of participant research at the NCNR is very high. Of the 367 publications produced in 2011 through work at the NCNR, 75 percent appeared in journals with high-impact factors, which is competitive with international sources such as the ILL, which offers many more instrument hours per year. Impressively, 13 different instruments produced high-impact papers (Journal Impact Factor [JIF] 7) in 2011, with powder diffraction and SANS responsible for more than half. Taken together, the continued degree of oversubscription and the high quality of participating user science at the NCNR confirm that there is continued high demand for neutron-scattering facilities in the United States. This demand is broad, spanning different research areas and neutron- scattering techniques, and it is very promising that there continue to be many researchers in the United States who want to use neutron scattering. There are several reasons for the outstanding success of the NCNR’s user program. At the most basic level, users decide where to carry out their experiments depending on beam flux and availability, the suitability and accessibility of sample environments, and the quality of staff support. It is clear that the NCNR management and staff understand very well what impels these decisions; it is also clear that the Expansion Project will provide extremely important new capabilities that will enable new science for existing participants as well as attracting new NCNR participants. The NCNR is also a very reliable source, providing more instrument hours than any other U.S. source at present, which is very important for attaining the high levels of user satisfaction. To assess the level of user satisfaction with the NCNR, the center conducted a user survey in 2007. In response to questions regarding (1) instrument performance, (2) sample environments and support facilities, and (3) capabilities and assistance from the NCNR staff, more than 75 percent of the 327 respondents reported that the NCNR was “very good” or “excellent.” Participants were only slightly less complimentary of the NCNR’s health physics services. The survey showed that commitment to developing new sample environments and to providing the needed level of support to ensure that the environments work during experiments is widely viewed as a defining feature of NCNR’s success. In addition, the long-running summer school and the various workshops on special topics were viewed by survey participants as being very effective in bringing students up to speed quickly on the capabilities of neutron-scattering measurements. Interviews that the panel conducted with the chair of the NCNR users group and the chair of the Beam Time Allocation Committee (BTAC) reinforced these findings. Both attested to the general satisfaction of the user community with the process and practices associated with granting beam time, including the roles played by NCNR staff members in obtaining proposal reviews. Both also expressed concern over the increase in the number of proposals anticipated with the upgrade of the facility, which will strain the current system. Each expressed the belief that the NCNR’s collaborative programs with universities, such as the University of Delaware and the University of Maryland, encouraged the development of sample environments and facilities that benefited all users. The chair of the BTAC noted in particular that she had access to new in situ shearing equipment recently placed in operation through the collaboration between the NCNR and the University of Delaware. Care should be taken to ensure that the proposal review process continues to work effectively as the NCNR facility expands. 22
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NIST senior scientists are crucial to the NCNR’s success. They have the experience and scientific perspective necessary to make sure that all the pieces are present to make experiments successful, to identify promising new scientific projects, to work with researchers to refine the experiments, to optimize the scientific output, and to use their considerable scientific reputations to seek out new and timely collaborations. These individuals also have the inclination and ability to train new users, forming the long-term mentorships that in many cases underlie the loyalty and continued association of many long-term users and their students. Most importantly, these senior researchers set much of the tone at the NCNR, making it a very attractive and productive place for young researchers, who in turn embrace the values of scientific excellence and education that define the NCNR’s central mission. The continued scientific excellence of the NCNR scientific staff is critical for maintaining the quality and impact of neutron- scattering science by the facility and its users and for developing new measurement techniques and applications. The NCNR management should continue to take care that the next generation of senior researchers continues to develop and remain excited about their research and that they are not overly burdened with administrative and other duties that are not characterized as research. Discretionary time on the NCNR instruments is used for calibration measurements, instrument development, and projects conducted by NIST researchers, but it is also very important for the following purposes: (1) bringing new users into the facility and introducing them to neutron-scattering techniques in general, (2) providing flexibility and rapid access for cutting-edge science, and (3) developing and retaining excellent instrument scientists and personnel at the facility. Discretionary time on the NCNR instruments should be maintained. This is a rather volatile time in the international neutron-scattering community, made complex by widespread financial uncertainties, the possible loss of capabilities at the Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex (J-PARC), and the SNS’s increasing capabilities. It will be challenging to maintain the excellent and broad scientific user base at the NCNR in this changing landscape, and it will be challenging for the NCNR to maintain its important institutional values given these considerable external forces. It is important that the NCNR not become complacent about its ability to attract the best neutron-scattering science. Special attention should be paid to maintaining the strong connections with participants over the approaching long shutdown, particularly if delays in the construction schedule lead to a delayed user cycle. As stressed above, the breadth and depth of the NCNR user research portfolio are crucial to its mission success, and care should be taken that this balance is maintained. There is a balance of user relationships, and university and—increasingly—industrial collaborations are very important for attracting both science and resources to the NCNR. There appears to be no current cause for concern. The NCNR management should remain mindful that the user perception of open access must not be compromised as the center serves the diverse communities that depend on the NCNR. 23