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RESEARCH PROGRAMS OF THE U.S. BUREAU OF MINES—FIRST ASSESSMENT, 1994 4 FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS Any successful high-quality research program requires, at a minimum, the following five ingredients: concise, clearly articulated programmatic goals with supporting sets of objectives and specific research strategies; consistency between research strategies and objectives and budgetary realities, over both the short and the long term; high-quality professionals to conduct research activities; adequate physical plant and supporting equipment and facilities; and efficient and effective measures for transferring accomplishments to customers. The mission of an organization provides a carefully defined and agreed-upon framework for the goals of its research programs. To help achieve these goals, specific objectives are defined for each program, with a credible estimate of the time and resources necessary to complete the work. Strategies are made to reach those objectives and ultimately achieve the goals It is within this general framework that the committee is making its assessment of the quality and type of research being conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Mines. In this regard the committee offers a number of findings, along with additional discussion and recommended actions for the bureau to consider. RESEARCH GOALS Finding 1 The U.S. Bureau of Mines has a need to communicate its research goals more clearly and effectively to employees, customers, and those responsible for annual funding.
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RESEARCH PROGRAMS OF THE U.S. BUREAU OF MINES—FIRST ASSESSMENT, 1994 Discussion Clearly there exists a need to improve communication between management, employees, and customers relative to bureau research initiatives. However, it is less than clear whether this results from ineffective approaches used to communicate important information to the bureau 's stakeholders or from the fact that research goals and objectives may lack focus, consistency, and relevance. Communication of the bureau's research goals to other government agencies appears spotty; in many cases this can cause redundant or misdirected activities. A similar situation exists with mining companies and other industry associations. A concerted effort addressing this concern, from the top levels of the bureau to the bench worker, would be beneficial. Many researchers feel that their managers do not communicate research goals well enough. Recognizing that nonmanagement personnel often do not appreciate the needs and responsibilities of management and do not have the full reasoning or understanding for why certain goals are set, management is challenged to better articulate the bureau 's research goals. Recommendation 1 The U.S. Bureau of Mines must identify, well in advance, the research goals necessary to achieve its mission and communicate those goals to its employees, its customers, and its funders. RESEARCH STRATEGIES Finding 2 The U.S. Bureau of Mines has a need to develop a well-defined set of research strategies focused on the accomplishment of carefully defined research objectives. Discussion Much of what is discussed above with regard to research goals equally applies as far as developing and communicating research strategies. These research strategies need to incorporate a greater degree of user input into their development by the bureau. This would help ensure greater relevance of bureau strategies and help build a constituency.
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RESEARCH PROGRAMS OF THE U.S. BUREAU OF MINES—FIRST ASSESSMENT, 1994 Recommendation 2 The U.S. Bureau of Mines must define specific research objectives and strategies to achieve its goals. Both the objectives and individual research project strategies should be challenging, internally consistent, timely, relevant, achievable, measurable, and economically viable. PROJECT SELECTION Finding 3 Implementation of the research goals of the U.S. Bureau of Mines and achievement of its objectives and strategies depend critically on the process of selecting individual research projects and the availability of well qualified professionals to conduct the work. Discussion At the present time there appear to be four nonexclusive sources of research ideas: The majority of research projects are self generated through the miniproposal-proposal selection process discussed in Chapter 2. Some programs are initiated through external funding sources. These include cooperative agreements with industry and with other government agencies and mandated research, called for by congressional or departmental action. Some projects are generated in response to technological targets of opportunity—these projects sometimes arise through the miniproposal process. They can be criticized or welcomed on a case-by-case basis depending on their application to the bureau's overall mission. Few proposals appear to be made for “blue sky” research projects, which are typically long-range, high-risk projects with substantial promise if successful. Although a certain proportion of the bureau's research should be directed to such projects, they do not appear to have a well-recognized channel for consideration. These four input mechanisms are discussed in more detail in the following sections. All are valid and can be used in the appropriate circumstances, but none will auto-
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RESEARCH PROGRAMS OF THE U.S. BUREAU OF MINES—FIRST ASSESSMENT, 1994 matically ensure that a project presented for selection will be chosen or rejected based on its relevance and scientific and technical merit. The present process depends primarily on internal input and review; however, the present internal process of evaluation is not well understood by the committee and needs clarification. In addition, the process could be improved by including more formalized external input and review to complement the internal process. The bureau expects that the Committee on Research Programs of the U.S. Bureau of Mines will facilitate the necessary external input and review. More clear and consistent communication of research goals, as recommended earlier in this chapter, is likely to improve project generation and selection. Miniproposal Process The miniproposal-proposal process described in Chapter 2 involves individual researchers as the major source of research ideas. The committee found, however, that the process is being utilized unevenly especially with respect to the initial reviews at the individual research centers before proposals are forwarded to Washington. Another shortcoming of the process stems from the lack of a clear and consistent research plan provided by headquarters, as noted earlier. Lack of such guidance can cause the proposals to be unresponsive to the mission needs of the bureau. Even such improvements do not completely solve the problem in that researchers continue to feel cut off from the review process and decision making by headquarters. Under the proposed reorganization plan, the selection and decision-making function should be moved closer to the researchers at the centers of excellence. External Funding External funding sources provide a means by which research topics can be inserted into the bureau's program. Congressional or departmental mandates may require bureau participation, but other interagency programs can be initiated by agreement. An example of a mandate from Congress is the bureau's successful research on the remediation of the Chicago River. There have been a number of programs initiated under interagency agreements. An example is a Memorandum of Agreement between the bureau and MSHA (Appendix A). Another type of interagency program is the application of mineral processing technologies for the removal of lead from small arms firing ranges operated by the Department of Defense. Companies willing to participate in funding research can also influence the selection of projects through cooperative research and development agreements (CRADAs) and other arrangements. These may utilize bureau research already in progress or lead to new ideas for research. A significant example of external funding from industry is the Santa Cruz joint venture involving the bureau and two mining
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RESEARCH PROGRAMS OF THE U.S. BUREAU OF MINES—FIRST ASSESSMENT, 1994 companies in a demonstration of in situ copper mining techniques. The bureau also carries out work with individual companies under similar arrangements. Targets of Opportunity From time to time attractive technologies emerge that may have application to the bureau's research mission. Such developments, whether or not they are discovered by the bureau, may inspire researchers to prepare miniproposals involving those technologies. This process can be an important means by which new research ideas enter the bureau system. A related means may be the creation of research needs that arise from the introduction of new technologies—for example, greater dust problems associated with the introduction of longwall mining methods. Technological targets of opportunity do not necessarily lead to quality research. Work done only because the technology is attractive or interesting may not relate to the bureau's mission. Long-Range, High-Risk Research The Competitiveness report cited earlier recommended that the bureau devote a portion of its resources to research aimed at revolutionary rather than evolutionary gains. The miniproposal process could introduce such concepts into the bureau's research program, but whether proposals for such research are made frequently was not apparent to the committee. The successful implementation of such research projects is usually highly dependent on the qualifications and creativity of the individual researchers. In some respects, the bureau's Washington headquarters might be a more logical point for the introduction of such concepts, but at present there appears to be no mechanism for that to happen. Project Review and Management Once a project is initiated, specific deliverables are negotiated for the following fiscal year; these include reports, technical papers, and cost evaluations. Milestones (e.g., completion of specific tasks) and decision points (e.g., redirection, expansion, contraction, termination) also are negotiated at this time. Once the research is under way, there are semiannual and annual progress reports from the research directors to the associate director for research. The Division staff evaluates the output of the research by reviewing the quantity, quality, and timeliness of manuscripts and other deliverables and by estimating the value of the research products. The incorporation of selected external subject area experts into these reviews could enhance the overall review process. Principal investigators and research teams that propose and conduct the research could
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RESEARCH PROGRAMS OF THE U.S. BUREAU OF MINES—FIRST ASSESSMENT, 1994 be more empowered if they are more routinely involved in the control of their own research budgets. Recommendation 3 To select projects that will meet its research objectives, the U.S. Bureau of Mines should reexamine its selection methodology, including both internal and external reviews. RESEARCH QUALITY Finding 4 The quality of research of the U.S. Bureau of Mines varies within and between research programs and centers; this is linked to the qualifications of the researchers. Discussion The quality and breadth of the staff are fundamental to the quality of the research programs. Establishing an excellent staff requires the following: hiring the most promising researchers; developing researchers as professionals, and providing opportunities for interesting, challenging, and relevant work to retain the best researchers. Hiring the Most Promising Researchers Competitive Salaries The committee's understanding of the bureau's hiring policies is that the entry level is quite low on the GS scale and that, as a result the salary differential can be 25% or so lower than comparable positions in industry, academe, or some other parts of government. This means that the most qualified graduates are not likely to join the bureau unless they also have a wish to remain in the area of the university from which they graduated. This can be desirable for workforce stability but can in turn lead to inbreeding—particularly noticeable at SLRC and to a lesser extent at RERC. Adequate or Good Facilities The facilities available at the research centers visited by the committee are discussed in Appendixes B, C, and D. In general, both space and equipment were in good order, and reasonable updating was carried out as
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RESEARCH PROGRAMS OF THE U.S. BUREAU OF MINES—FIRST ASSESSMENT, 1994 a cooperative development between centers—a commendable achievement. The committee found no constraints on the research by inadequacies in this area. Staff Support/Technicians In general, the support was good in comparison to universities but not as good as in some industrial laboratories. It appeared to the committee that the senior career technicians were used intelligently and as an integral part of the research program. When appropriate, students at nearby universities are used. Several purposes were served; the students gained valuable experience and money to help their education, and in turn the center got an extended look at potential employees. Mix of Seniority An important contribution to developing and retaining talented researchers is to make sure they can be rewarded as researchers without taking on management responsibilities. The dual-ladder system is designed to do this, but the committee found a skepticism among the staff that it really works. The expectation levels for the research ladder would be clearer to everyone if a few credible role models could be developed at each center. As a minimum, there should be a cadre of people equivalent to tenured faculty at a good university. This is true of many government labs, but the committee has seen few bureau researchers who would qualify. Mix of Academic Backgrounds In some of the areas toward which the bureau is moving, it is important to consider hiring people with the necessary new skills rather than retraining those currently employed. For example, in the environmental research area there are clear gaps in the disciplinary expertise (e.g., geochemistry, hydrology, hydrogeology, environmental engineering) needed to conduct the research. Developing Researchers as Professionals Continuing Education In general, it appears that adequate opportunities exist for continuing education, and a reasonable number of people participate. On average, about one short course or college course is taken per person per year. Participation in Professional Meetings and Professional Society Activities From the information provided to the committee, it appears that the bureau could encourage greater participation at local, regional, and national levels. Seminars and Visitors Seminars should be expanded, with more external speakers invited to the centers in addition to more internal seminars. Special attention should be given to bringing external visitors for a week or two to give a series of seminars and interact more extensively with staff in new and important areas of research. Quality Peers The most important development takes place by interaction with a critical mass of peers with differing backgrounds and capabilities. Therefore, it is essential that individuals be hired from different universities and disciplines to ensure
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RESEARCH PROGRAMS OF THE U.S. BUREAU OF MINES—FIRST ASSESSMENT, 1994 that a diversity of thinking and competence exists. It would be useful for researchers to spend time at other centers. Imaginative use of postdoctoral and visiting researchers from universities and industry can serve to overcome temporary overloads and to enrich the technical competence of the centers. Broadened Views of Economic Implications Early in the development of a project the researchers should think about the economic bounds for success. Providing the Opportunity for Interesting, Challenging, and Relevant Work The selection of projects must provide research opportunities that are important in fulfilling the mission of the bureau and that are challenging to the researchers. A formal mechanism to include more external review in program definition would help to maintain relevance and standards. Interchange with potential users and/or customers at the front end of a project would help to minimize technically excellent but questionably relevant programs. Service work should be undertaken primarily to gain insight into other people's problems and interest, not simply “job shop” work. Project Selection The bureau should make sure that projects are carried out by the originators of the ideas, whenever possible. Recognition of the Importance of Contributions In addition to salaries, the bureau should investigate other means of instilling pride in the bureau, such as awards or internal news releases. Recommendation 4 To meet its research objectives, the U.S. Bureau of Mines should strive to hire, develop, and retain the best researchers. Specific areas that need attention include the following: a credible dual-ladder reward system for professional research staff; increased staff visibility through publication credit and participation in professional meetings; increased communication of internal and external scientific and technical developments through regularly scheduled seminars; and national-level searches for research positions and compensation of the best qualified scientists and engineers at levels commensurate with capabilities and competitive with other employers.
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RESEARCH PROGRAMS OF THE U.S. BUREAU OF MINES—FIRST ASSESSMENT, 1994 FACILITIES Finding 5 The present research facilities of the U.S. Bureau of Mines are capable of supporting high quality research. Efforts to progressively upgrade equipment are laudable. Discussion The bureau has done an excellent job of providing research facilities for its staff. Research equipment is relatively modern and well maintained in all facilities visited by the committee. There appears to be little or no unnecessary duplication between centers. Expensive analytical equipment is located at the centers where it is likely to be most heavily used, and analytical services are shared among research centers. Centers work together in planning major equipment purchases for the future. Recommendation 5 To maintain the capability to conduct high-quality research, the U.S. Bureau of Mines should continue its existing efforts to upgrade equipment and facilities. DISSEMINATION OF RESULTS Finding 6 The internal and external efforts of the U.S. Bureau of Mines in technology transfer can be greatly improved; they currently tend to hamper the achievement and dissemination of high-quality research. Discussion Several mechanisms are used to transfer of technology developed by the bureau. These include internal publications, Reports of Investigations, Information
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RESEARCH PROGRAMS OF THE U.S. BUREAU OF MINES—FIRST ASSESSMENT, 1994 Circulars, publication of papers in journals and proceedings volumes, patents, presentations at technical meetings, and open industry briefings. The bureau also maintains an electronic bulletin board to disseminate its research information. This bulletin board can be accessed by Internet users and contains information on the following: bimonthly lists of publications CRADA opportunities information; environmental technology research; mining, health, and safety research; software products of the bureau; technology newsletters; and technology transfer updates. There is an ongoing need to achieve the most effective methodology for providing fully integrated technology transfer and dissemination of research results to the customers of the bureau. In this regard the bureau should continue its efforts at technology transfer and communication with industry, government, and university cooperators. Furthermore, the bureau should develop closer relationships with user communities to identify problems of major need and to promote cooperative research that will attract significant outside support and interest from customers. Such a relationship then provides feedback to project selection processes. The bureau should aggressively pursue partnerships, particularly with mining equipment manufacturers, that would result in actual field tests and demonstrations of different technologies. Emphasis should be placed on serious, committed interactions with cooperators. These interactions should help the bureau select topics for high-priority research and accelerate technology transfer. The bureau should consider entering into more CRADAs or other joint mechanisms for research with industry groups in addition to arrangements with individual companies. Group arrangements would permit a broader cross-section of industry participation and increase the amount of funding per agreement without requiring a larger contribution from each industry partner. This approach could be facilitated through a series of workshops with strong participation from industry and should be focused on specific research needs in a given technology area. These workshops would have a goal of identifying a joint agenda for action with clearly defined roles for the bureau and the industry (and other agency) participants. This type of approach has proved successful in other areas of the federal research program that are working to achieve increasingly productive interactions with industry.
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RESEARCH PROGRAMS OF THE U.S. BUREAU OF MINES—FIRST ASSESSMENT, 1994 Timely dissemination of research results is essential. This can be accomplished in multiple ways, including: (1) meetings with potential cooperators in industry, government, and academe; (2) technology transfer seminars held at relevant locations; (3) electronic distribution of results; (4) publication in the permanent scientific and engineering literature; and (5) presentations and participation at professional meetings. The committee was provided with data on the publication records of the bureau as a whole and for three individual research centers. A review of these data shows that the bureau should strive to increase the number of publications in the permanent engineering and scientific literature (bureau Reports of Investigations, bureau Information Circulars, and articles in peer-reviewed, nationally or internationally recognized scientific and engineering journals). For the centers reviewed, publication productivity varies from acceptable to, at best, minimal. Some center directors seek to increase opportunities for research staff to participate in professional meetings. However, the policies of bureau headquarters (and the Department of the Interior) regarding the number of employees who can attend individual meetings are perceived slightly differently from center to center; such policies can place constraints on participation by the bureau's professional staff in technical meetings. Recommendation 6 To ensure that research results are put to effective use, the U.S. Bureau of Mines must improve technology transfer. Specific areas that need attention include the following: communication and publication of research results in widely read journals and increasingly through electronic, on-line means; active participation in professional activities and meetings; and development of close working relationships with industry leading to partnerships, collaborative programs, and CRADAs.
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