NCNR as a User Facility
The NCNR is a national center for research that provides the advanced measurement capability of thermal and cold neutrons to researchers from industry, universities, and government agencies. It plays a key role in fulfilling the NIST mission, to promote U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology and the American Competitiveness Initiative by providing a facility and a wide and evolving array of neutron instruments that enable fundamental scientific discovery and the development of new technologies.
A broad and vibrant user community makes use of the instrument suite at NCNR. Oversubscription of the available instruments and insufficient staff to support NCNR users continue to be a concern. The number of proposals submitted has almost doubled over the past 5 years, and the instruments were oversubscribed by a factor of 2.2, on average, in 2006. The expansion and the reliability enhancement projects are crucial for maintaining NCNR’s vigor and scientific output.
The NCNR user program has grown steadily and served approximately 850 physical users during 2006. A recent survey conducted by the NCNR User Group Executive Committee in March 2007 demonstrated that the users are well served. Typical responses rated the training, instruments, and facilities as good to excellent. Importantly, NCNR staff have consistently been evaluated as excellent by the majority of users according to user surveys in 2004 and 2007. The chair of the committee that allocates beam time mentioned to the panel that a strength and driver of the user program has been the strong staff support and the well-organized, critical, and external review process of user proposals. He noted that the research community believes the proposal process is reasonable and fair. A novel concept to further strengthen the scientific output of the facility is the ongoing development of a science group whose leaders range across a spectrum of strong NCNR scientists and whose overarching goals are to produce high-impact science, develop new partnerships and proposals for new funding, guide development of instruments, and conduct outreach to grow and support the burgeoning neutron scattering community.
In the 2007 user survey, the need for additional specialty sample environments was mentioned a number of times. In response, NCNR announced (on www.grants.gov) it is giving small grants to develop and build sample environments. The small grants program initiated by the NCNR facility is an excellent and innovative method of leveraging expertise in the user community to provide enhanced sample environment development and capabilities. If successful, this program could be expanded to address stated needs for improved data analysis programs.
The NSF-supported CHRNS program is a positive example of synergistic activity between government agencies. New ways must be found to support the NCNR expansion project and maintain its robust scientific output. Such collaborative interactions are also indispensable for supporting new users.
NCNR’s policy that allocates some fraction of the available beam time for an increasing number of instruments to the general user pool is laudable and should be extended. In particular, the thermal neutron instruments should be added to this suite.
Technical staff should be hired so that the scientific staff have time for the users as well as for their own scientific undertakings.
Since the last NCNR review, the committee has observed an enhanced responsiveness of other NIST divisions to collaborations with NCNR. Last year, 5 percent of the NCNR participants were from NIST (non-NCNR). Some of the collaborating divisions are Analytical Chemistry, Ionizing Radiation, Biochemical Science, and divisions within the Electronics and Electrical Engineering Laboratory. The Polymer Division continues its strong involvement with NCNR.
All nuclear reactors have had to increase the strength and reliability of their security systems in the face of possible harmful intrusion attempts. NCNR has responded by investing in many new systems and components. However, as a facility with a strong commitment to providing excellent facilities and services to its industry-, government-, and university-based users, it can only successfully meet their needs by operating with a substantial degree of openness. A reasonable and stable balance between highly secure and very open operations must be found to avoid creating a sterile fortress. While steady improvements in the scientific capabilities of the facility are justifiable, endless additions to the security systems could severely interfere with the facility’s ability to achieve its mission, and care must be exercised to avoid such an unfortunate outcome.