The purpose of this study is to:
Assess the performance and impact of the National Science Foundation’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers program (MRSEC program); and
On the basis of current trends and needs in materials and condensed matter research, recommend future directions and roles for the program.
To address this task, the National Research Council’s MRSEC Impact Assessment Committee—comprising representatives of universities both with and without Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers (MRSECs), industry, and national laboratories—employed four in-person meetings, four whole-committee teleconferences, extensive questionnaires to and telephone interviews with National Science Foundation (NSF) and university personnel, and visits to current, former, and would-be MRSEC sites. Four working subcommittees, which often met independently, addressed issues associated with research, education and outreach, industrial outreach, and facilities and management. This Executive Summary presents the full committee’s principal findings and recommendations.
The nature of materials research demands mechanisms to support interdisciplinary collaboration for the conception and execution of ideas and for developing the capabilities to sustain our nation’s competitiveness in the production of new technology and products based on advances in materials science and engineering. This work often is conducted over a very long timescale, and new materials tend to
have far-reaching implications for many other fields, from medicine to high-energy physics to the economy. The task at hand was to assess the relative performance and impact of MRSEC-supported activities in comparison with other mechanisms for support and to recommend a robust strategy for the future of the program.
MRSECs have enormous perceived impact.
Conclusion: MRSEC awards continue to be in great demand. The intense competition for them within the community indicates a strong perceived value. These motivations include:
The ability to pursue interdisciplinary, collaborative research;
The resources to provide an interdisciplinary training experience for the future scientific and technical workforce from undergraduate to postdoctoral researchers;
Block funding at levels that enable more rapid response to new ideas, and that support higher-risk projects, than is possible with single-investigator grants;
The leverage and motivation MRSECs provide in producing increased institutional, local, and/or state support for materials research;
The perceived distinction that the presence of a MRSEC gives to the materials research enterprise of an institution, thus attracting more quality students and junior faculty; and
The infrastructure that MRSECs can provide to organize and manage facilities and educational and industrial outreach.
The committee pursued several comprehensive exercises to measure the impact of MRSECs. Constructing algorithms to distinguish the MRSEC-enabled results from others was complicated by the following features:
MRSEC participants are supported by many funding sources;
MRSEC participants engage in multiple activities with multiple collaborators;
Average performance often does not capture the full impact of a portfolio of efforts; and
MRSECs are intended to enhance the conditions for conceiving of research and education activities, and yet most measures of impact examine the results from the execution of these activities.
Conclusion: The committee examined the performance and impact of MRSEC activities over the past decade in the areas of research, facilities, education and outreach, and industrial collaboration and technology transfer. The MRSEC program has had important impacts of the same high standard
of quality as those of other multi-investigator or individual-investigator programs. Although the committee was largely unable to attribute observed impacts uniquely to the MRSEC program, MRSECs generally mobilize efforts that would not have occurred otherwise.
MRSECs conduct and publish research with characteristics similar to those of other programs. The shared-facilities element of MRSECs represents a significant portion of the NSF investment in midsize facilities for materials research; moreover, the MRSEC program offers one of the few mechanisms for investment in operations and maintenance of shared facilities. The MRSEC education and outreach programs clearly benefit from the sharing and pooling of resources; improvements by NSF and the participating communities are needed, however. Although industrial collaborations that take place within the MRSEC framework are of a similar character as those elsewhere, the activities initiated by MRSECs generally represent efforts that would not have occurred otherwise.
Conclusion: The effectiveness of MRSECs has been reduced in recent years as a result of increasing requirements without a commensurate increase in resources. Increasing the mean grant size is necessary to allow the program to fulfill its important mission goals.
Average funding for these centers, in inflation-adjusted dollars, has declined in the past decade by up to 10 percent. A key element of the MRSEC program is the participation of graduate student researchers. When the program budget history is compared with the increasing costs of graduate education, the trends are even more dramatic. The decline in funding has been particularly detrimental to efforts to build and maintain the advanced instrumentation necessary for leading-edge materials research. Another decade of similar decreases will undermine the ability of the MRSEC program to make future valuable contributions. In addition, the program’s responsibilities for industrial partnership and for education and outreach have increased, as has the number of MRSECs, whereas the MRSEC program itself has remained at a relatively constant budget level.
Recommendation: To respond to changes in the budgetary landscape and changes in the nature of materials research in the coming decade, NSF should restructure the MRSEC program to allow more efficient use and leveraging of resources. The new program should fully invest in centers of excellence as well as in stand-alone teams of researchers.
Resources for basic research, especially in materials research, have not kept pace with overall economic growth in the past decade. Expectations for the range and extent of impacts enabled by NSF’s programs have also changed. And materials research has continued to mature as a discipline. The MRSEC program can be
positioned to better facilitate advances in research in the next decade by focusing its resources on targeted, specific objectives and by increasing flexibility to allow specialization based on the strengths at individual centers. The committee developed one detailed vision of an approach for achieving these objectives.
Two funding mechanisms could be created, under the auspices of the NSF Division of Materials Research: one (Materials Centers of Excellence, or MCEs) would support several coordinated teams of interdisciplinary research groups, carry out educational and industrial outreach, and support state-of-the-art facilities. The second element (Materials Research Groups, or MRGs) would support interdisciplinary research groups that do not have separately mandated educational and industrial activities or facilities. The committee envisioned a revenue-neutral transition to its formulation of the program, although this restructuring would allow NSF to focus more resources on the program in the future.
The key element of this proposal is its holistic approach to a restructuring of the MRSEC program in order to balance the concentration of resources optimally on key topics while preserving breadth in the overall portfolio. The rationale for this shift is to centralize the value-added activities at appropriately funded centers without losing the benefits of interdisciplinary research being done by smaller groups of researchers. To do so, smaller groups (MRGs) would be formed with more flexibility and without some of the responsibilities of the MCEs; conversely, the responsibilities for educational and industrial outreach and facilities development would be taken up by the MCEs as part of their missions. MCEs should not, however, be viewed as more permanent institutions than the current MRSECs, and, in particular, NSF should create a review mechanism for evaluating the research of the research groups within MCEs on some common, comparative, competitive basis with the research outputs of the MRGs. The MCEs would shoulder more of the educational and industrial outreach and facilities development and maintenance responsibilities on behalf of the entire materials research community. Employing a common process and criteria for the review of research while restructuring to distribute responsibilities more effectively will keep the overall portfolio vibrant, competitive, and better matched with the objectives and current budget of the MRSEC program.
Conclusion: NSF encourages MRSECs to operate as a national network. Although some efforts have been made in that direction, the committee did not observe strong cooperation among the discrete centers of the program. The MRSEC program is thus missing a clear opportunity to leverage resources and thereby strengthen the materials research enterprise as a whole.
The opportunity to leverage the combined resources of the MRSEC program is significant. The centers could expedite the pace of the overall research effort by tak-
ing advantage of tools and talents distributed throughout the program. Such initiatives, however, are best launched from the centers and the researchers themselves.
Building the integrated capabilities of materials research centers into a cooperating network would strengthen materials science and engineering in the United States as a discipline and as a factor in U.S. competitiveness.