This Overview reviews the key elements of the report, summarizes each chapter, and details the committee’s full set of findings and recommendations.
The National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers (MRSECs) trace their origin to the Interdisciplinary Laboratories (IDLs) created by the Advanced Research Projects Agency in the 1960s. Initiated in 1994, the MRSECs represent the latest in a series of centers designed to foster organized group research on materials in the academic community. After more than a decade, it is appropriate to examine the MRSEC program in present and future contexts. The National Research Council was asked to carry out such an examination and 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.
The MRSEC Impact Assessment Committee, with representatives of universities (both with and without MRSECs), industry, and national laboratories, employed four in-person meetings, four whole-committee teleconferences, extensive
questionnaires to and telephone interviews with NSF and university personnel, and visits to current, former, and would-be MRSEC sites. Four working subcommittees, which often met independently, addressed issues of research, education and outreach, industrial outreach, and facilities and management. This Overview presents the outcome of this study and serves as a map to the more detailed exposition that follows in the body of the report.
The MRSEC technical agenda is the study of materials. Materials are the “stuff” that things are made of.1 We recognize the importance of the development and use of new materials in the history of humankind by identifying key periods in that history by the materials used, as in the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages. Frequently, the most exciting and important advances in materials science and engineering occur at the interfaces between, or by unconventional combinations of, traditional disciplines. This interdisciplinary research is carried out by scientists and engineers with training and backgrounds that include physics; chemistry; materials science and engineering (including the more traditional disciplines that focus on metallurgy, ceramics, and polymers); mathematics; electrical, chemical, civil, and mechanical engineering; and, increasingly, the biological sciences. Often, teams of researchers must be assembled to make progress on complex problems. This group process may occur in a “natural” way, following from the traditional modes of scientific exchange, or it may be induced by organization of the research environment through laboratory structure (typical of industry and some federally funded laboratories), geography (proximity of research groups, strategically placed common areas, and so on), and funding mode (group research programs of various types in several funding agencies). Collaborations may be formed around the conception or execution of research; different modes of collaboration are stimulated differently.
The first serious effort to induce group activity in academic materials research occurred when NSF assumed responsibility for the IDLs in 1972. Searching for some structure that would distinguish these block-funded, locally managed entities from the NSF-funded individual research on similar topics, NSF instituted the idea of Materials Research Laboratories (MRLs). MRLs consisted of a number of “thrust areas,” each of which was to be focused on some broad problem requiring a multidisciplinary team of researchers. At this time NSF also created the overall materials management unit known as the Division of Materials Research (DMR).2
Focused research in areas of particular complexity that required a team of scientists in different disciplines became more and more common in the 1970s
and was stimulated in part by the new culture engendered by the MRL program. These “seed” groups began to compete with other programs for funding. Until 1985, these groups could receive 3-year contracts from NSF after a lengthy evaluation process. To provide materials departments with a faster response to rapidly developing opportunities and developments within thrust areas, the NSF added the Materials Research Group (MRG) program after 1985. This program primarily targeted universities without an MRL, although some institutions with MRLs also received MRG funding. It is important to note that these two programs operated almost entirely independently.
The MRLs were deemed a success and used, in part, as the model for future NSF programs, including the Science and Technology Centers (STCs) and Engineering Research Centers (ERCs) developed in the 1980s, although these centers had different missions and operating structures. When DMR reorganized its group research program in 1994, it was natural to use the term “center” and dub these new entities “Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers.” The research elements of MRSECs are organized into Interdisciplinary Research Groups (IRGs), with current centers composed of one to five IRGs. MRGs were eliminated as a separate program. As nanoscience and technology became more important, a new block-funded effort was developed and christened Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers (NSECs).
These various types of NSF-funded centers differ in technical content. Some depend on internal group structure while others do not, and their management, duration, and funding levels vary. Centers do have elements of commonality; they are funded with the intention and mandate of carrying out activities beyond research. In the case of the MRSECs, they must manage shared experimental facilities (SEFs), conduct education and outreach (EO), interact with and transfer results to industry, and work toward a more diverse population of practitioners in the field of materials research. In addressing its charge, the committee examined each of these elements of the MRSECs, commencing with an introduction in Chapter 1, presenting the larger context of the program in Chapter 2, and then exploring the impact of research and facilities, education and outreach, and industrial collaboration in Chapters 3 through 5. Chapter 6 summarizes the committee’s findings on the overall impact of the program and presents recommendations for restructuring group-based research in materials science and engineering at NSF.
MRSECs were created from the MRL program (and the much smaller MRG program) beginning in 1994, with all MRLs either terminated or converted to MRSECs by the end of 1996. Many new centers were created, for a total of 24 MRSECs at the end of 1996. At the same time, the budget for the MRL/MRSEC program increased from approximately $29 million per year (as-spent dollars) in 1993 to $44.28 million per year in 1996. This represented a change of 124 percent in the number of centers, but only a 53 percent increase in budgets. Clearly, MRSECs
were “designed” to be smaller than MRLs, and some of the capabilities of the MRLs were reduced or eliminated in the transition. Most MRLs trimmed staff in shared experimental facilities and decreased the rate and value of equipment purchases for such facilities. More recently, the MRSEC as-spent budget slowly increased, and then essentially reached a plateau during the years 2003 to 2006 ($53.4 million for 2006).
From the outset of the MRL program, NSF managers and the research community have sought methods for evaluating the nature and quality of the work done in the locally managed, group-intensive laboratories (see the subsection entitled “MITRE Report” in Chapter 2). A study by the MITRE Corporation at NSF’s behest in the late 1970s concluded that the research quality was comparable to that done by researchers not supported by the MRLs. The present committee sought to reexamine these questions in the context of this study of the MRSECs. The committee’s overarching goal was not to specifically evaluate the MRSEC program, nor to recommend the continuation or termination of the program, but rather to describe and characterize its performance and impact and to make recommendations for the future of the program. The committee divided its analysis into several sections: research and facilities, education and outreach, and industrial interactions. These topics are addressed sequentially here; additional material can be found in each of the supporting chapters.
In assessing the impact of the research enabled by the MRSEC program, the committee sought first to identify any unique, distinguishing features: Is the research enabled by the MRSEC program characteristically different from research enabled by other mechanisms? For instance, the charter of the MRSEC program refers often to the importance of collaborative, group-based research for advancing materials research. If the MRSEC program specifically enables group-based research, are the research results distinguishable from those developed by individual investigators? Or perhaps MRSECs enable research at a different phase of the overall progress in advancing the frontiers of materials science and engineering.
The committee found the task of evaluating the impact of MRSEC research quite daunting, primarily because research papers published in peer-reviewed journals rarely attribute the results to a single support mechanism. Moreover, any research, even by an individual researcher associated with a MRSEC, is a combination of activities supported “inside” and “outside” the MRSEC. Thus, even if MRSECs have played a unique role in the research enterprise, such as in enabling the formulation of research projects that could not otherwise have been envisioned, there is no easy way to provide substantiation.
Conclusion: Consistent with previous analyses, the committee found no simple, quantitative, objective measure to clearly differentiate the MRSEC research product from that of other mechanisms supporting materials science and engineering research.
Although the committee was unable to identify MRSEC-enabled research in “blind taste tests,” it successfully assessed the overall research quality in comparison to the research enabled by other mechanisms and elsewhere around the world. For instance, it addressed the question, Do published research results that acknowledge MRSEC resources achieve citation indices and other measures of impact comparable to research enabled by individual-investigator awards?
The committee studied a set of major breakthroughs in materials research over the past four decades. U.S. universities, and in particular MRSECs and their predecessors the MRLs, played a limited but pivotal role in several of these discoveries. The committee conducted several comprehensive analyses comparing citations of MRSEC-associated research publications and those of the broader research community. The distribution of MRSEC-associated “top cited papers” across subfields of materials research was very similar to that of the top 100 most-cited papers. Affiliations of the top 100 research papers also showed a 10 percent contribution from institutions with MRSECs or MRLs. The committee also found that the top MRSEC papers were cited much more often than the average materials research paper, but that the best-of-the-best materials research papers had significantly more citations. However, these papers generally predate the emergence of the MRSEC program. The committee also found that the MRSEC program has the same level of collaboration as found in comparable national and international groups. To some extent, having fostered this type of research at an early stage may be the ultimate success of the MRSEC program. Finally, the departmental affiliations of MRSEC-associated authors and those of the top-cited materials research papers were quite similar.
In two related exercises, the committee examined the global stature of MRSEC-related research groups. In comparison to those for the Max Planck research institutes of Germany, the MRSECs’ publication citation rates were quite comparable. In a peer-voting exercise, the committee contacted researchers around the world in several different subfields and solicited their opinions about world-leading research teams. Research teams at institutions with MRSECs dominated the results.
Although many of these measures are indicators of correlation and not causation, the committee came to believe that the research program enabled by MRSEC awards has been, in general, at least as effective as that enabled by other mechanisms.
Conclusion: Overall, the MRSEC program produces excellent, frontier science of the same high standard as that supported by NSF through other
mechanisms. In terms of quality, MRSEC research is at least on a par with that of other multiple-principal-investigator programs and individual grants in the United States and internationally, and is an important element of the overall mix for support of materials research, including support for big centers and single-investigator grants.
Since most publications acknowledge multiple sponsors, it is not possible to prove that MRSEC funding yields leadership in discoveries, publications, or citations in materials research. The lack of objectively quantifiable differences in research productivity or impact suggests that the unique value of the MRSEC program is in its broader impact to the local and national materials communities.
One could additionally wonder about the potential for a “chicken-and-egg” problem. At a strong institution with a MRSEC award, which came first, the strong campus research effort or the center? In the committee’s judgment, the competitive selection process for MRSEC awards puts the burden on the pre-existing strength of the institutions. While a MRSEC award may enhance an institution’s materials research programs, it will not necessarily bring them into being.
The committee’s analysis led to several related general findings.
General Finding: Sponsors of research are increasingly unable to claim “sole ownership” of research results; MRSECs are no exception.
Most research publications now acknowledge multiple sponsors. It is not possible to demonstrate that the MRSEC support yields leadership in discoveries, publications, or citations. In part this is because funding per MRSEC has decreased significantly in the past decade, so that each group requires multiple sponsors.
General Finding: Most highly cited publications contain one or two senior authors, indicating that the size of research collaborations is usually small.
Although the materials field is highly collaborative and the general belief is that the community benefits from interactions among local groups of many individual investigators in the same field, discoveries and publication records indicate that over 50 percent of the published papers are from individuals and groups of two.
The committee notes that analyses of publications and citations are only sensitive to how the research work is carried out; it is much more difficult to determine how the research topics are conceived and what factors influence that process.
In 2004, NSF’s Division of Materials Research estimated that 12 percent of the MRSEC budgets was spent on capital equipment (typically from the IRG, Seed, and Facilities categories). The facilities budget also supports (at least in part) technical
staff members, who train students and maintain the equipment. About $240,000 per year per MRSEC (on average) is spent on capital equipment. By rough estimate, about half of the equipment purchased through the NSF instrumentation programs (DMR’s Instrumentation for Materials Research program or NSF’s agency-wide Major Research Instrumentation program) within DMR ends up in a MRSEC facility. Through the MRSEC program, another $5 million (or an average of about $200,000 per center) is added to this amount. Assuming a 10-year life for forefront materials characterization equipment, a center might thus afford a total inventory of equipment of about $4.4 million.
The variations in actual capital spending from one MRSEC to another are considerable. The recent National Research Council report on shared experimental facilities (Midsize Facilities: The Infrastructure for Materials Research3) found that most SEFs that serve the large majority of the materials community have a $1 million to $50 million replacement capital value, with an average of about $10 million. At present, other sources of support for SEF equipment (typically, the universities themselves or, in some cases, foundations) are not large enough to make up the difference in needed support. Thus, the average age of equipment in SEFs continues to increase, with many individual items more than 20 to 25 years old.
Conclusion: The MRSEC program offers one of the principal opportunities in materials research to support shared experimental facilities (SEFs) that include not only equipment but also the personnel to provide training for students and to perform maintenance. Growing constraints on the per capita MRSEC budget have greatly diminished this ability, which is a concern for the infrastructure of materials research in general.
EDUCATION AND OUTREACH
Education and outreach (EO) covers a broad range of activities that serve audiences including K-12 students and teachers; undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral researchers; policy makers; and the general public. Consistent with the breadth of activities, EO projects serve many different purposes: educating future scientists and engineers; broadening the participation of underrepresented groups in science, technology, engineering, and medicine (STEM) disciplines; increasing science literacy among members of the public; informing the public about scientific and technical issues; improving K-12 science education; and enabling the development of a scientific and technical workforce.
Although all NSF proposals are required to address the “Broader Impacts” of the proposed research,4 an EO component is specifically required by the MRSEC program. Many (although not all) MRSECs have at least a part-time person (the EO coordinator) dedicated to managing EO projects. NSF does not require that specific activities or audiences be targeted by the MRSEC, with the exception of the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, and a general dictum to broaden participation by underrepresented groups in STEM fields. MRSECs are encouraged to pursue activities consistent with the research and organizational/partnership opportunities of the center, as well as the size and local context of each center.
As with research, most MRSECs leverage their core EO funds with supplements and cooperate with other campus activities, making it difficult to separate the impact of the MRSEC per se. Although highly variable, about 10 percent of the total MRSEC budget is spent on EO activities and coordination, with much of this effort going to REU programs. The Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) program common to most MRSECs is funded from a program element at NSF located outside DMR.
Conclusion: The MRSEC education and outreach program has impacts on the NSF mission to educate and prepare the nation’s future workforce.
MRSECs provide unique opportunities for interdisciplinary research experiences that are different from those an individual student would experience in a single-investigator laboratory.
MRSECs foster environments that support interactions with other programs to leverage funds and coordinate activities across campuses and disciplines. This culture leaves a vital imprint on students who work in MRSECs.
MRSECs foster a mind-set of outreach and a sense of responsibility in current and future researchers.
The centralized EO infrastructure that a MRSEC offers empowers researchers to engage in EO who would not ordinarily have done so.
General Finding: The most significant and well-documented contribution of MRSEC EO programs is the preparation of future researchers at all levels.
Research-related education and outreach activities leverage MRSEC strengths and expertise. MRSECs can provide unique opportunities for interdisciplinary
See National Science Foundation, “Merit Review Broader Impacts Criterion: Representative Activities,” 2002, available at http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2002/nsf022/bicexamples.pdf.
research experiences that are different from those that an individual would experience in a single-investigator laboratory. Although broadening participation by women and underrepresented groups remains a challenge, the greatest contributions to meeting this challenge often come from EO programs such as REU and RET.
Conclusion: Although the committee’s impression is that most MRSECs are doing good to excellent jobs with their EO programs and that many of these programs have a significant impact on their audiences, the lack of data to support these assertions poses a serious problem for NSF as it seeks to make the most efficient use of its resources.
REU and RET programs are much more likely to be evaluated than any other education efforts, although the evaluations focus primarily on logistics and self-reported participant perceptions. The quality of evaluations of other EO components varies greatly. MRSECs are reviewed primarily on the breadth of activities and the number of participants and not on documented outcomes.
General Finding: The future impact of MRSEC EO activities is threatened. The continued lack of specificity in EO expectations at the agency level has led to an emphasis on quantity over quality and innovation over impact.
General Finding: Most MRSECs feel compelled to participate in many disparate EO activities. This approach often does not make optimal use of the MRSECs’ strengths, dilutes their potential impact, and in fact reduces the likelihood of determining what that impact is.
There is a perception that the demands of the EO program have grown significantly since the original inception of the MRSEC program. While the requests for proposals for the program show most growth in demands, the broad portfolio of activities, even in the smallest MRSECs, suggests that MRSEC resources are being spread too thinly and that the impact of those resources is being diminished. The committee did observe that although MRSEC per capita financial resources decreased over the past decade, the reported number of students involved has been growing. This trend suggests that non-full-time-equivalence is being used and that a greater variety of students are being exposed to MRSECs.
This perception should not be taken to suggest that the community does not value EO: the overwhelming majority of MRSEC participants expressed a belief that EO is important and enthusiastically participate in EO activities. Nevertheless, there is a strong belief among the MRSEC participants and prospective participants that the selection process rewards quantity over quality and innovation over impact. Two specific examples were mentioned most often:
The belief that a MRSEC must reach all audiences, including K-12, undergraduate and graduate students, and the public; and
The belief that continuing an existing, successful program is less well received than proposing something new.
The emphasis on breadth has led to evaluation that consists primarily of counting numbers of attendees, because the programs are so diffuse that more meaningful evaluation is impossible without funding from other sources. Some programs focus on generic outreach that has little to do with the MRSEC focus, much less materials science and engineering. While this type of outreach is important, it does not leverage MRSEC resources.
While current MRSECs mentioned that renewal reviews value doing something new over continuing programs that have been shown to be effective, the larger question is whether MRSECs should be required to innovate in the EO component of their programs, or whether the focus should be on using best practices to make an impact on their communities.
Focusing MRSEC resources into a select number of programs that address the local strengths and needs makes much more sense than trying to reach all audiences. The MRSECs that are successful in reaching a variety of audiences often are those with significant external funding for EO.
Recommendation: Education and outreach should continue to be part of the overall MRSEC portfolio; however, MRSECs should focus resources on programs with proven high impact that leverage each MRSEC’s unique research strengths and that can be meaningfully evaluated.
The committee believes that EO is an important part of the MRSEC program but that steps can be taken to increase its effectiveness. In particular:
MRSECs should focus on a limited number of activities that are aligned with MRSEC research goals, are consistent with the MRSEC size, leverage participant expertise and interest, and address local needs.
Because of their documented impact, REU programs should continue to be required; providing research opportunities for faculty and students at predominantly undergraduate and minority-serving institutions should be strongly encouraged.
MRSECs that offer RETs should provide teachers with research experiences in materials science and engineering. The RET is not meant to be primarily a curriculum-development program.
Other EO projects should be peer reviewed by materials research education experts during the MRSEC proposal/review process. The best of these projects should be funded as long as the overall MRSEC is funded.
The RET recommendation is tempered by the committee’s concern that the impact of the RET program is largely undocumented. The RET program is NSF-wide, so the lack of data is not solely a MRSEC issue. Cooperative efforts to document the impact of the program, as has been done with the REU program, are necessary. However, validating the program is beyond the scope of what should be expected as part of a MRSEC EO component.
Recommendation: In the context of the above recommendation, NSF should develop and support the MRSEC education and outreach community in sharing and facilitating ideas and resources, including best practices, for all activities. This would be especially helpful in the area of increasing the participation of underrepresented minorities.
A shift in emphasis from innovation to impact would make it easier for MRSECs to share best practices in EO. This would facilitate the distribution of EO materials already developed and decrease local re-invention of existing EO materials.
The Partnerships for Research and Education in Materials (PREM) program is an excellent example of how NSF can act as a catalyst for activities that involve women and underrepresented minorities in materials science and engineering research. The committee believes that centralized activities like PREM have a much higher probability of success than leaving each MRSEC to its own resources. NSF should leverage the experience of its MRSECs to identify and share successful strategies in this area not just with other MRSECs, but also with the materials science and engineering community as a whole.
Recommendation: NSF should provide appropriate guidance to MRSEC applicants and reviewers in order to refocus education and outreach activities and ensure the program’s effectiveness.
It is evident to the committee that there is a multiplicity of EO activities in the MRSEC program, and that the lack of guidance from NSF to the MRSECs and reviewers has contributed to what appears to have become a less productive enterprise than it could be. This should not be so. Reviewers should receive clear instructions about the role of EO in the MRSEC: the impact of a MRSEC’s EO program should be of cardinal importance. Further, MRSEC EO programs have different objectives and therefore should not be evaluated using the same standards as those for research. NSF funds educational research under other programs, and major initiatives should be supported through those programs, with a separate review system.
An important goal throughout the history of the MRSEC program has been to promote “active cooperation with industry to stimulate and facilitate knowledge transfer among the participants and strengthen the links between university-based research and its application,” according to the program solicitation. Industrial outreach includes relevant sectors involved with the application of materials research beyond just commercial industries. Consequently, “industrial outreach” includes national laboratories and other federal entities (e.g., Department of Defense laboratories) that apply the results of basic materials research to address important national needs. MRSECs are required to develop and execute a program for knowledge transfer to industry. The MRSEC solicitation makes clear that this implementation should be flexible and consistent with the size, capabilities, mission, and vision of each individual MRSEC.
Industrial interaction may have direct benefits for MRSEC research programs that are stimulated by the challenges and research needs articulated by industrial partners. This positive feedback to the research planning was affirmed in discussions with numerous MRSEC directors. While responding to industrial challenges, MRSECs have maintained an appropriate focus on leading-edge and transformational research. To date, MRSEC industrial outreach appears to have been aimed primarily at large industrial research laboratories, but the opportunity to interact more with innovative small and start-up companies is increasing.
Conclusion: The program goals for MRSEC industrial collaborations are appropriate. A flexible approach to meeting those goals is essential to address the needs and capabilities of the individual MRSECs.
Conclusion: The MRSEC program requirement for industrial collaboration leads to important activities that likely would not occur otherwise (e.g., workshops, short courses, external advisory boards with industrial advisers).
The MRSEC directors whom the committee informally interviewed all were supportive of the industrial outreach and knowledge-transfer goals for the program. Although some centers had an existing campus culture that already supported industrial outreach activities, other MRSECs had to create a culture of industrial outreach to respond to program requirements. As a result, all centers had substantial outreach efforts that added significant value to the overall program. The committee found that local flexibility in meeting the program goals was effective in taking advantage of inherent differences among MRSECs, the university environment they resided in, and the targeted industrial community. As with education
and outreach, there is a disproportionate impact on small centers to demonstrate accomplishments in all MRSEC program goals.
Conclusion: MRSECs have developed industrially relevant programs while maintaining a commitment to solving long-term research problems.
Maintaining this approach is important to the quality of the research efforts and to educational continuity for students, especially those involved in Ph.D. research programs. Industrial interactions are a positive part of the educational experience for students. The ability to connect their research to external needs and to have an opportunity to work with industrial scientists was clearly cited as a strength by students interviewed by the committee.
Conclusion: MRSEC industrial collaboration efforts are generally supported by multiple sources, in addition to MRSEC funds, such as funds from industrial partners themselves.
In a few cases, a significant portion of the MRSEC funding (more than 8 percent) was used for industrial outreach. More typically, MRSEC industrial outreach is supported primarily by university and/or state funding and is usually assisted by a university liaison program. This leveraging is valuable to the MRSEC program in meeting its goals, but it makes assessing the effectiveness of the industrial outreach program more difficult to judge as a function of MRSEC resources supporting the effort.
Conclusion: The importance given industrial collaboration and technology transfer in the review process is seen as not being commensurate with the importance of this program goal.
Each MRSEC tends to have its own program for industrial outreach and collaboration, and industrial contacts typically do not interact with more than one MRSEC. There is evidence of occasional industrial interactions that incorporate more than one MRSEC, but collaborative efforts among centers are the exception.
MRSEC leaders understand the change in the research landscape within the United States and are trying to respond appropriately. In particular, there is a shift away from a system dominated by several large, comprehensive industrial research laboratories toward a greater number of small and entrepreneurial companies involved with technology innovation. Understanding how to work effectively with these smaller companies and ensuring that these interactions are properly recognized and valued by the MRSEC program will be critical.
The committee was generally impressed with the breadth of the industrial outreach efforts across the MRSEC program. Each center seems to have a vital
industrial outreach activity that meets the stated program goals. While it is difficult to clearly evaluate the impact of the industrial outreach efforts, the committee believes that the MRSEC program is generally meeting its goals and that the industrial outreach is valuable.
Recommendation: NSF should establish metrics for evaluating the effectiveness of industrial collaboration and technology transfer.
In addition to considering worldwide best practices, NSF should quantify the relative importance of industrial outreach and knowledge transfer relative to other program requirements in program solicitations. This would enable centers to put the appropriate focus and resources on this aspect of their center and would enable reviewers to make appropriate judgments about accomplishments.
Recommendation: Together with the team of MRSEC directors, NSF should provide a mechanism to enable industry to effectively understand the resources and expertise available through the network of MRSECs. This may require a coordination function that currently does not seem to exist, such as a national network liaison officer based at NSF.
Industrial outreach and knowledge-transfer effort is inherently based on interactions among people. Encouraging more personnel exchanges, such as student internships, extended sabbaticals for industrial researchers at MRSECs, visits by MRSEC faculty to key industry partners, significant industrial involvement on MRSEC advisory boards, and so on, will be essential to effective knowledge transfer and skill development (especially for students). The most common barrier to successful industrial interactions is simply a lack of contact among the relevant players. Taken together, the MRSECs represent a significant body of talents, tools, and expertise. The committee believes that better leveraging of this combined value could enhance industrial collaborations and technology transfer. For instance, a program liaison could centrally receive and guide inquiries and requests from potential industrial partners.
PERCEIVED AND MEASURED IMPACT OF MRSECS
Why do outstanding people and institutions pursue MRSEC grants with all of the associated responsibilities? Analysis of inquiries made of faculty at both MRSEC and non-MRSEC institutions revealed multiple motivations for participation in the MRSEC program.
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.
These factors suggest that there are strong positive influences of the MRSEC program on the conception of research ideas and the ability to pursue them quickly and effectively, which in turn have clear, positive implications for maintaining and advancing U.S. research competitiveness in the materials field. This observation must be tempered in the context of the current funding situation, in which MRSECs are asked to take on increasing responsibilities without the availability of commensurate resources.
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. 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 similar in character to those elsewhere, the activities initiated by MRSECs generally represent efforts that would not have occurred otherwise.
AT THE BREAKING POINT?
The committee examined funding data supplied by NSF that characterized as-spent dollars for various programs and activities in DMR from 1996 to 2006. Support for the individual-investigator programs has increased by 34 percent in this period (although it has been decreasing slightly in the past 3 years), national user facilities by 45 percent, and instrumentation (Instrumentation for Materials Research and Major Research Instrumentation, although the latter is non-DMR funds) by 42 percent. The MRSEC part of the centers program has increased in this period by only 20.5 percent.
In 2006, the MRSEC budget of $53.48 million supported 26 active MRSECs and 3 MRSECs in phase-out funding. The average MRSEC budget is thus close to $2 million per year (with an actual range of $1.0 million to $3.8 million per year). The MRSEC budget is divided into six principal categories: IRGs (63%); Seeds (for rapid response to new ideas) (10%); Education and Outreach (10%); Shared Experimental Facilities (11%); Industrial Outreach (2%); and Administration (4%). As with the individual MRSEC total budgets, there is considerable variability from center to center in these categories. Individual MRSECs also leverage these funds through institutional commitments, user fees for shared experimental facilities, and/or industrial and state support.
An “average NSF budget” for a current MRSEC can be determined from these figures:
Average Annual MRSEC Spending
Interdisciplinary Research Groups
Education and Outreach
Compounded by the decrease in spending power estimated using an approximate but realistic university inflation index developed by the committee in the subsection entitled “NSF and the Division of Materials Research” in Chapter 2, the average MRSEC can now undertake only about 70 percent of the effort that it undertook in 1996, and only 40 percent of the effort that an MRL could undertake in 1993. It is in this context of diminished resources that the committee examined the current program that not only consists of the original tasks of research and shared experimental facilities but now also includes education and outreach, diversity, and
industrial interaction. More information about the origin of the MRSEC program and its historical role in materials research is presented in Chapters 2 and 3. Does this suggest that increased funding for MRSECs should be sought by decreasing other elements in DMR—for instance, the individual grants?
Analysis reveals that single investigators at DMR have faced similar conditions of attrition in purchasing power. From 1996 to 2005, the median DMR single-investigator grant increased from $83,786 to $112,333 in as-spent dollars, an increase of 34 percent. During this time the number of grants increased from 377 to a high of 561 and then decreased to 365 in order to increase the average size of the grants. While the size of the grants has increased in as-spent and even in Office of Management and Budget (OMB)–inflated dollars, it has decreased compared to university inflation and is much less than the overall increases in the NSF budget. This strain on the individual investigator is at least in part a consequence of the significant decline in DMR funding relative to other elements of the Mathematics and Physical Sciences (MPS) budget. It is unlikely and highly undesirable to address weakness in MRSEC funding by eroding further the already stressed individual-investigator grant program.
What then about seeking additional resources from elsewhere within NSF? According to NSF data, the NSF budget for research and related activities (uncorrected for inflation) increased from $2.046 billion to $4.333 billion from 1993 to 2006 (or an increase of 112 percent, a number that is substantially above university inflation). The situation for DMR is dismal by comparison: from 1993 to 2006, the budget increased from $175.3 million to $242.9 million (or by 38 percent, somewhat more than the OMB inflation index and well below the university inflation index). It is clear from these observations that DMR is losing the battle within NSF for its share of new resources. This committee was not charged to nor did it attempt to determine whether the issue is one of new program responsibilities for NSF or of waning success in convincing senior leadership of the continuing value of materials research and the needs within DMR.
It is clear that a major problem looms as prospects for the next decade of materials research funding at NSF are contemplated. Another decade of similar decreases will undermine the ability of the MRSEC program to make valuable contributions in the future.
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 centers, in constant dollars, has decreased substantially in the past decade. Declining funding has been particularly detrimental to building and maintaining the advanced instrumentation necessary for leading-edge materi-
als research. Additional pressures have arisen from increasing industrial and education and outreach responsibilities per center coupled with an increasing number of MRSECs, while the MRSEC program has remained at a relatively constant budget level. As materials research has blossomed as a robust and stable enterprise, the MRSECs have been expected to handle more and more responsibilities for the community (facilitating education and outreach activities, promoting diversity, engaging industry in technology-transfer activities, acquiring and maintaining instrumentation and facilities, and so on). This trend is not sustainable.
Entry into the MRSEC program is highly sought. More than 100 preproposals were submitted in the last competition, which ended with only two new MRSECs added to the program. Few NSF programs can identify higher relative proposal pressure or smaller success ratios. The disappearance of the MRG program from DMR effectively relegates support for interdisciplinary group research to IRGs in centers only. This proposal pressure adds weight to the committee’s conclusion that the MRSEC program is a valuable component of the U.S. materials research portfolio and should be funded and managed accordingly.
Conclusion: The MRSEC program needs to evolve in order to successfully meet its objectives in the coming decade. To do so, the National Science Foundation must restructure the program to reduce requirements, reduce the number of MRSEC awards, and/or increase the total funding of the MRSEC program while preserving its positive elements.
The MRSEC program is at a critical point in its history. The current trends suggest that, if the program is left unchanged, the capacities and competencies of the centers will be subject to both relative and absolute decline. Without an increase in total funding and/or a restructuring of the sort that the committee proposes, MRSECs will have to be smaller, operating research programs that have a more limited reach than those they replaced in the original Materials Research Laboratory system. To the extent that facilities cannot be supported, they will likely fail to rise either to state-of-the-art levels or to the standards being set by global competitors. Continuation of these trends suggests a program that will not be able to make significant or uniquely identifiable contributions to the national portfolio of materials research. It will be one of a class of programs that, in very similar ways, supports multi-investigator efforts at modest levels, albeit doing so with considerable overhead in the form of other requirements for service to non-research programmatic goals.
The committee’s deliberations took place in the context of a national discussion about the future of U.S. global leadership in science, technology, and innovation
that has been unfolding over the past few years. In October 2005, echoing widespread concerns, the National Academies’ report Rising Above the Gathering Storm5 outlined a program designed to enhance the U.S. science and technology enterprise so that the nation can sustain its cultural vitality, continue to provide leadership, and successfully compete, prosper, and be secure in an increasingly interconnected world. In particular, the report identified basic research in engineering and the physical sciences as a key underpinning of the nation’s strategic strengths. Response to this call to arms has been strong in the current administration (which proposed significant additional funding for NSF, the Department of Energy, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology as a component of its American Competitiveness Initiative) and in both chambers of Congress where several bills have been approved in committee.
In the event that additional resources can be made available, the committee emphasizes the need to increase unit funding of MRSECs rather than increasing their total number, while also addressing the issues of program management that would enhance discipline-wide education and industrial outreach. Simultaneously, the committee would endorse the reestablishment of a Materials Research Group program to support those small-group efforts that now fall into the abyss between individual-investigator and large center efforts. If additional resources do not become available, the number of MRSECs would have to be decreased to achieve these goals.
There have been calls for renewed investment in the physical sciences and engineering (e.g., Rising Above the Gathering Storm6) as well as thoughtful discussion of the level of resources necessary to achieve the scientific goals in condensed-matter and materials physics (e.g., Condensed-Matter and Materials Physics: The Science of the World Around Us7). The committee firmly believes that the MRSEC program is an important and strategic investment in NSF’s portfolio of materials research activities; however, the level of support is suboptimal. Additional resources and the restructuring indicated above could produce significant additional value.
Born from the MRL program, the MRSEC program represented the next step in an evolutionary process for centers-based research in materials. Since that time, the character of the research community has continued to evolve. Fully equipped centers play an important role in the enterprise, serving as nucleation points for
facilities, outreach efforts, and even research planning activities such as workshops. Small teams of researchers, taking advantage of these centers and other resources, have become just as important. Trying to address both of these needs with one program with a standard element (the MRSEC) has begun to strain the program.
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 research advances in the next decade by improving the focus of its resources on targeted, specific objectives and by increasing its flexibility to allow specialization for the strengths of individual centers. The committee developed one detailed vision for achieving these objectives; it is articulated here. The committee envisioned a transition to this new formulation of the program to be initially revenue-neutral.
Two related funding mechanisms could be created, under the auspices of the NSF Division of Materials Research: one (the Materials Centers of Excellence, or MCE, program) would support several coordinated teams of interdisciplinary research groups, carry out educational and industrial outreach, and support state-of-the-art facilities. The second would support interdisciplinary Materials Research Groups (MRGs) that do not have separately mandated educational and industrial activities or facilities. The rationale for this shift is to centralize the value-added activities at appropriately funded structures, without losing the benefits of the interdisciplinary research being done by smaller groups of researchers. The MCEs would take on more of the educational and industrial outreach and facilities development and maintenance responsibilities on behalf of the entire materials research community.
The committee notes a critical element in this proposal: a review process that compares and competes the research activities across the entire program. That is, the barrier between MCEs and MRGs should be permeable in both directions as well as outside the program. For instance, the new MCEs would be much like the present MRSECs (three to six research groups but of more flexible sizes) and with enhanced capabilities for “seed” research, equipment, types of outreach, and an explicit facility responsibility for the region. In review (for both renewal and entry into the program), the MCEs would be reviewed separately by committees as to the excellence of the science and as to the additional responsibilities of an
MCE. A successful MCE would demonstrate excellence in both areas and should be explicitly evaluated as greater than the sum of its parts. Additionally, the MRGs would be reviewed only on the excellence of the science. The reviews of the science at the MCEs and of the MRGs elsewhere should be done by experts in the particular subfields and be competitive. The reviews of the other aspects of the MCEs should be by experts in those areas. More information on the specifics is provided in Chapter 6.
DMR has mechanisms for collaborative, group-based research.8 For instance, in 2006, there were 33 active Focused Research Group (FRG) awards that represented a total annual investment of about $11 million. Similarly, DMR supported 36 active Nanoscale Interdisciplinary Research Team (NIRT) awards in 2005 at a combined level of nearly $13 million. Although NIRTs are being phased out, renewal proposals are being directed to the Focused Research Group program. NIRTs are more like mini-centers, however. The committee draws an important distinction between the nature of research supported by these mechanisms and the chief characteristic of research enabled by the MRSEC program: the MRSEC program encourages collaboration in the conception of research, while the other programs facilitate collaboration in the execution of research. By providing intellectual and physical infrastructure up front, the MRSEC program encourages collaboration in the conception of research. The committee distinguishes the proposed MRG awards by their longer-term nature (5 or 6 years as opposed to 3 for FRGs). Finally, the committee’s proposal envisions a direct and open competition among all the MRGs in a regular cycle.
There is tremendous opportunity to be realized if the MRSECs operate with greater cooperation and synergy. MRSECs largely conduct their industrial outreach programs completely independently of other MRSEC programs. There is evidence of occasional industrial interactions that incorporate more than one MRSEC, but collaborative efforts between centers are the exception. There could be a significant benefit realized if industry could effectively understand the resources and expertise available through the MRSEC program at the national level. This may require a coordination function that currently does not seem to exist, such as an overall national network liaison officer based at NSF.
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
According to the NSF Grants Program Guide, “A group proposal is one submitted by 3 or more investigators whose separate but related activities are combined into one administrative unit. A collaborative proposal is one in which investigators from two or more organizations wish to collaborate on a unified research project.” Available at http://www.nsf.gov/funding/preparing/faq/faq_g.jsp?org=DMR#group; viewed May 1, 2007.
MRSEC program is thus missing a clear opportunity to leverage resources and thereby strengthen the materials research enterprise as a whole.
NSF has encouraged the individual MRSECs to work together as a network of centers that could enhance the program through cooperative effort. Annual meetings of MRSEC directors, as well as less frequent assemblies of education and outreach coordinators, have led to exchanges of best practices and shared concerns; however, there is little evidence of collaborative efforts stimulated by such interactions. Several MRSECs recently have started an NSF-funded effort to develop regional capabilities for shared facilities. This effort is to be commended, but there should be more efforts of this type.
Recommendation: NSF should enable its materials research centers to play a greater role in advancing materials research.
As centers for teams of investigators, MRSECs could play a natural role in facilitating community formulation of initiatives in materials research. Such activities might include but not be limited to organizing conferences and workshops addressing significant questions in materials research, creating and maintaining a national directory of MRSEC expertise and facilities, leveraging economies of scale in industrial and/or educational outreach, and providing geographically based infrastructure for materials research facilities.
The committee’s analysis shows the MRSEC program to have had important impact over the past decade, about commensurate with that of the individual-investigators program within DMR. By virtue of the intense competition within the community for these centers, the committee concludes that they are perceived to be quite valuable. The chief feature of MRSECs that appears to be unique is their ability to create an environment of group-based research with sufficient scope and resources to foster interdisciplinary research and training of students. Similarly, MRSECs serve as resource centers for carrying out certain “broader impact” types of activities as part of NSF’s mission.
Looking forward, the formulation of the MRSEC program needs to evolve to take advantage of a new generation of scientific progress and discovery. Group-based research has become an established element of the DMR portfolio, and the MRSEC program should focus on empowering small, nimble research groups as well as larger infrastructure nodes with their own competitive research teams. This evolution will help ensure NSF’s position as a leading supporter of the world’s most important materials research.