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23 V. SOME CAUTIONARY OBSERVATIONS The panel agreed that centers as a mode of research support can produce significant scientific accomplishments. By assembling-where they are needed the critical number of researchers, scale of facilities, and types of instrumentation, centers can accelerate the generation of new knowledge and its application. Thus, if implemented wisely, the Science and Technology Center program will strengthen the Foundation's role as the nation's premier agency for the support of basic science. In acknowledging the potential value of such centers, however, the panel recognizes several potential problems: o Science and Technology Centers may divert funds from individual investigator grants, which continue to be the best means of supporting research and training in many scientific fields. The panel envisions increasing support for centers only in the context of a rising NSF budget and has received assurances that the Foundation's leadership is of the same view. In particular, the pane! cautions strongly against a repetition of the experience with the Defense Department's University Research Initiative (URI) program. Supporting the URI program without providing for an increase in total basic research (6.1 ) funds has weakened not only the existing basic science programs of the military services but also the URI program in its formative stages. * Co-chair of the Department See the February 26, 1987, memorandum of Dr. Cornelius J. Pings, of the Defense-University Working Group on Engineering and science Education, to Hon. Chapman B. Cox, Assistant Secretary of Defense, Force Management and Personnel.
24 Further, it is unavoidable that, within universities, Science and Technology Centers will compete with individual investigator projects for such university resources as land, building construction, and tenured faculty positions. This problem is real but not unique to programs supported by the Foundation. Although acknowledging that universities labor under severe constraints in funding instrumentation and facilities, the panel believes that it is the responsibility of each research university to face this issue squarely. The centers program should be evaluated periodically to inform NSF of the cumulative effect of the program on the universities. o o There is a risk that centers will in time become unresponsive to new ideas and unreceptive to new people. The administrative apparatus and size of centers may become obstacles to innovation. The review procedures outlined above are designed in part to guard against this danger, but university administrations must also be alert to it. o Cross-disciplinary research, which is one of the rationales for centers, must have natural reasons for its existence. Sometimes the best science can be done at the interfaces of disciplines, sometimes not. It would be unfortunate if the Science and Technology Centers program induced able scientists to abandon important problems simply because they are not regarded as sufficiently cross-disciplinary to be funded under the program. No single type of Science and Technology Center should become so predominant that other kinds of centers are excluded from receiving support. For example, the likely popularity of facility-based centers that furnish instrumentation and related services should not preclude centers devoted to experimental or theoretical work in single disciplines or across disciplines. The objective of accelerating technology transfer could lead to a narrow focus on near-term commercial applications in center activities. There should be no requirement that Science and Technology Center applicants have the prior assent or support of
25 industry. Academic laboratories have a special responsibility to furnish leadership in breakthrough science and to call attention to new opportunities for commercial exploitation. There may be some lag between a discovery and recognition by business that it warrants investment. A related danger is over-emphasis on outreach activities to the point that they detract from research efforts. The funding of one or two centers in a relatively small scientific field could concentrate a large fraction of the talent, weakening other institutions and reducing healthy competition. The decision to create a center should take into account the need to maintain institutional diversity in the field. Finally, the panel believes that the entire continuum of size and scale of NSF research funding should be addressed by experts outside the Foundation. Not only large-scale activities but also individual and small group research suffer from insufficient funds, support of too short duration, obsolete equipment, and inadequate staffing. These are problems that the NSF Science and Technology Centers program will not solve but that urgently need attention. Notwithstanding these cautions, the panel believes that Science and Technology Centers can make significant contributions to science and the nation's economic competitiveness if they have proper management, resources, and evaluation and if the Foundation maintains a healthy balance among the principal modes of research support.