Additional Concerns of the Panel
STAFFING AND FUNDING
Many of the panel’s comments can be classified as one of the three closely related concerns that were applicable to projects in all four divisions:
The thinness of staffing, especially in critical projects;
The preponderance of temporary staff over permanent staff; and
The low fraction of internal funding for many projects.
Project staff resources seem to be spread very thinly, and many important projects are just one person deep. Sustaining a core competence in critical areas is essential to the EEEL and NIST missions. Some projects, especially in emerging areas, require more resources if they are to have more impact. Both considerations will require more staff to achieve continuity of expertise in essential areas and critical mass in emerging areas.
Much of the cutting-edge research is being performed by temporary staff, while permanent staff are increasingly involved in managing the projects and applying for outside agency (OA) funding. While this mode of staffing can be cost effective, the work being done by these researchers, both permanent and temporary, will make them attractive candidates for jobs outside EEEL, aggravating the problem of long-term planning, vision, and sustainability.
EEEL has been quite successful in pursuing OA funding. Many projects now obtain 50 percent or more of their total funding from OA. However, this success could also result in an increase in the fraction of temporary staff, an increased workload for the permanent staff to maintain the OA funding, a shift away from EEEL’s mission to satisfy the OA objectives, a diminishment of NIST’s independent authoritative position, and a further strain on EEEL’s ability to maintain its core competency.
These issues are well known to EEEL management but remain an ongoing challenge. The recent strategic planning efforts should result in a long-term plan detailing how and in which disciplinary areas these issues can be addressed.
A serious concern for some of the panel members is the extent to which international relationships could damage rather than reinforce U.S. competitiveness. They noted that the 2008 national priorities4 document supports this finding. As one example, the measurements services and antenna calibration work at EEEL are recognized as the gold standard for calibration of these types of measurements and are central to the NIST mission. The EEEL personnel performing this activity have been hosting their counterparts from Korea to assist them in duplicating this critical capability in their national measurement facility. Other examples of activities that would strengthen the capabilities of some of our most serious competitors included the recruitment of guest researchers from China, which served to train the staff of China’s national counterpart to
NIST. Other panel members had less restrictive interpretations of the above-mentioned national priority documents. During the next review the panel will seek clearer and more specific policy guidance on this point.
THE PLANNING PROCESS
The two new research areas, macroelectronics and nanobiotechnology, are very strong and have allowed for the recruitment of outstanding young investigators. The linewidth standard activity has been phased out ever since suitable standard reference materials were developed and made available through NIST. This example of starting new research areas and phasing out mature programs is evidence that the formal strategic planning process is ongoing and being implemented across SED.
Strategic planning is being conducted throughout EEEL, but the detail and implementation are least developed in the Electromagnetics Division. This may be due to recent changes in division management, but all staff should become fully engaged in this process.
In many cases, activities are being initiated that lie at the boundary between EEEL’s mandate and the mandates of other laboratories within NIST. Representatives of EEEL did not describe clearly the process by which these boundaries are set. Is it strictly based on the entrepreneurial efforts of the individual scientists, or is some coordination at the lab level attempted? One such issue is the decision about which activities fall within the sphere of the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology (CNST) and which fall within that of EEEL. Another is how the spintronics activity within the magnetics efforts might interact with the efforts related to time and frequency or integrated circuits.
There is still some question as to how new projects are initiated and old ones stopped in response to the EEEL strategic planning. In other words, there is some question about how the strategic plan is translated into action.
A plan for how EEEL will interact with and utilize the CNST should be established. CNST is a large investment for NIST, and EEEL should be a large customer. There is an opportunity for an interaction between CNST and the EEEL work on localized materials properties measurements (permittivity and permeability). CNST may be able to provide submicron test structure fabrication, while EEEL can provide test structure design and measurement.