As stated on the website of the Engineering Research Center Association, “The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Engineering Research Centers (ERCs) are interdisciplinary, multi-institutional centers that join academia, industry, and government in partnership to produce transformational engineered systems and engineering graduates who are adept at innovation and primed for leadership in the global economy.”1 Since the ERC program’s inception in 1985, NSF has funded 67 ERCs across the United States. NSF funds each ERC for up to 10 years, during which time the centers build robust partnerships with industry, universities, and other government entities that can ideally sustain them upon graduation from NSF support. As of 2015, the ERCs have disclosed 2,215 inventions, been awarded 739 patents, issued 1,339 licenses, spun off 193 companies employing 1,452 people, and graduated 4,057 students with bachelor’s degrees, 3,918 students with master’s degrees, and 4,432 students with doctorates. Currently, NSF supports 19 ERCs, and in 2015, NSF established three new centers with a total initial investment of $55.5 million for breakthrough solutions in compact mobile power, off-grid water treatment, and nature-inspired soil engineering.
To ensure that the ERCs, which NSF considers one of its flagship investments, continue to be a source of innovation, economic development, and educational excellence, NSF commissioned the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and the National Materials and Manufacturing Board of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to undertake a study to articulate a vision for the future of NSF–supported center-scale, multidisciplinary engineering research. This 21-month study, conducted by the ad hoc Committee on the Future of Center-Based, Multidisciplinary Engineering Research, will be forward-looking and will focus on the forces that are likely to shape engineering research, education, and technological innovation in the future. The committee will also assess the associated challenges and opportunities in the center concept for the engineering community and will consider and evaluate the most promising models and approaches for multidisciplinary engineering research that can successfully address these challenges and opportunities. NSF’s ERCs will be used as prominent examples or cases in the study, but the study’s intent is not to evaluate them. The study will also be informed by other models of large-scale, multidisciplinary engineering research in the United States and other parts of the world. The statement of task for the overall study is provided in Appendix C.
As part of this project, the committee organized and convened a 1-day symposium intended to engage the broader engineering community in the study.2 The Symposium on Exploring a New Vision for Center-Based, Multidisciplinary Engineering Research, held April 6, 2016, in Washington, D.C., featured four plenary panel presentations on the following topics, which are consistent with the themes of the statement of task:
2 The committee’s role was limited to planning the symposium, and this proceedings has been prepared by the rapporteur as a factual summary of what occurred at the symposium. Statements, recommendations, and opinions expressed are those of individual presenters and participants, and are not necessarily endorsed or verified by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, and they should not be construed as reflecting any group consensus.
- The evolving global context for center-based engineering research,
- Trends in undergraduate and graduate engineering education,
- New directions in university-industry interaction, and
- Emerging best practices in translating university research into innovation.
The symposium also featured smaller breakout working groups designed to elicit a broad range of ideas from the attendees.
In addition to planning the symposium, the committee will issue a final consensus report containing findings and recommendations. The consensus report may propose visions for center-scale research in engineering over the next 10 to 20 years and address issues such as new models for innovation that connect center research to real-world impacts; the appropriate role and emerging models for such centers in education and broadening participation; and how to continuously enable breakthrough engineering research by attracting the most innovative and diverse talent in the field. The committee aims to deliver a prepublication version of the report in January 2017 and a final version in April 2017.
The ERC program was born out of concern about the state of engineering in the United States. In the early 1980s, industry, academic, and government leaders saw that academic engineering programs often lacked prestige and advanced technical capabilities. In addition, the somewhat narrow, theoretical focus of university engineering research programs was often out of step with industry’s applications needs, particularly at a time when U.S. manufacturing faced new challenges from global competitors in key areas such as the automotive industry. At the same time, computer industry sectors such as data processing were on the brink of, or already making, revolutionary advances. The belief among many in the engineering community was that the role of the engineer needed to change to accommodate these challenges and opportunities.
NSF sought advice on the purpose and goals of ERCs from engineering leaders through the NAE, and the resulting 1983 NAE symposium report3 recommended guidelines for an Engineering Research Center program. This document laid out two primary goals: ERCs should improve engineering research and education, and they should help the United States be competitive in global markets. In essence, these goals amounted to an attempt to revolutionize engineering education and research in the United States. The main means to accomplish these goals were academia-industry partnerships that would, among other things, facilitate knowledge and technology transfer, create interdisciplinary cultures on campus, and engage students in advancing technology with industry. “The Engineering Research Center should accustom students to the idea that the engineer does research in order to do, not merely in order to know,”4 wrote Roland W. Schmitt, a General Electric vice president who served as National Science Board chair from 1984 to 1988.
With a budget of $10 million, the inaugural ERC competition attracted 142 proposals from more than 100 institutions. In April 1985, NSF made awards to fund the first six centers. George Keyworth, who was then-director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said the funding round “may have been the toughest grant competition in NSF’s history.”5 The first-generation ERCs focused on manufacturing and commercial design. Subsequent generations featured an open competition of proposals on various research topics and began to explore information technology, microelectronics, biotechnology, and health care delivery systems. The third generation of ERCs, started in 2008, is now
3 National Academy of Engineering, Guidelines for Engineering Research Centers, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 1983.
4 National Research Council, The New Engineering Research Centers: Purposes, Goals, and Expectations, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 1986, p. 26.
5 Ibid, p. 11.
investigating new opportunities in nanotechnology, sensing, and energy systems. At the same time, today’s ERCs are nurturing pre-college students’ interest in engineering, providing educational opportunities with international partners, and fostering a greater role for small business in ERC innovation.
In introductory remarks to this symposium, NSF Director France Córdova said that by any measure, the ERCs have delivered on the goals of bringing industry, academia, and government together to produce advances in engineering, innovative technologies, and effective solutions that translate into valuable industry-ready products and services. She noted that NSF reports estimate the economic value of ERC-originated products and processes to be in the tens of billions of dollars. That figure, she added, does not include the enormous benefits of those products that have improved health and safety, boosted industrial productivity, and enhanced environmental protection for the United States and the world at large.
While applauding the many successes of the ERCs is appropriate, said Córdova, NSF is deeply aware that the world has changed over the past 30 years, and she cited the Internet and three-dimensional, additive printing as but two examples of advances that are changing engineering and manufacturing. For NSF to remain the place where discoverers are developed and discoveries begin, it is important, she said, to not be satisfied with the status quo and consider if there are new ways to organize multidisciplinary engineering research and education that now only take advantage of today’s technologies, but stand to benefit from those yet to come. Hence, this study, which Córdova envisions will be forward-looking and focused on the forces likely to shape engineering research and education.
Addressing the symposium attendees, she asked them to look 20 to 30 years into the future to help NSF develop an inspiring vision for center-scale research in engineering over that timeframe. “We want to hear your thoughts on the most promising models and approaches for multidisciplinary engineering research that can successfully address those challenges and opportunities,” said Córdova. In particular, she asked the attendees to keep the concept of convergence in mind during their discussions, for as she put it, convergence represents such an important way of thinking about how engineering, physics, and biology work together with the social, behavioral, and economic sciences, as well as with computing and the information sciences, to drive toward new solutions, new ways of thinking, and new kinds of innovation. She also hoped the discussions would consider ways of organizing center-based research to balance the tension of breaking out of intellectual silos and falling back into them.
To help guide the day’s discussions, Córdova posed the following four key questions for the symposium to address:
- What models might most effectively enable breakthrough multidisciplinary engineering research and discoveries that require center-scale investment, considering the convergence of physical sciences, engineering, the life sciences, and social sciences?
- What educational models of center-based engineering research programs are best suited to create a more diverse, internationally aware, and flexible talent pool capable of addressing complex real-world problems?
- What academic-industry-practitioner partnership models might most effectively promote advances in user-inspired basic and translational research?
- What metrics can be used to define successes and risks of such centered programs?
In considering these four questions, Córdova said NSF is interested in making sure that the ERCs are focusing on the research opportunities that have great potential for impact. “That is a big concern for us, especially as disciplinary boundaries are collapsing,” she said. NSF is also concerned, she noted, that the ERCs going forward will keep pace with the way the innovation process has changed over the past 30 years while continuing to have a major impact on engineering education.
In concluding her remarks, Córdova shared an observation that Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates made about forecasting the future in an era of accelerating scientific and technological change. He said that forecasts will always overestimate the change that will happen in 2 years and underestimate the
change that will occur over 10 years, with the point being that visions of what can be accomplished in a decade tend to fall far short of what can actually be done. With that in mind, she asked the participants to “think broadly, think big picture, and think way out of the box. Help us create a bold new paradigm for the ERC program, and NSF will do its very best to fulfill your vision.”
The symposium (see Appendix A for a copy of the symposium agenda) was organized by the committee in accordance with the procedures of the National Academies. The committee’s role was limited to planning the symposium, and this proceedings has been prepared by the rapporteur as a factual summary of what occurred at the symposium. Statements, recommendations, and opinions expressed are those of individual presenters and participants and are not necessarily endorsed or verified by the National Academies, and they should not be construed as reflecting any group consensus. This proceedings summarizes the presentations and discussions that occurred throughout the symposium that will serve as input for the committee’s subsequent deliberations to meet the goals of the study outlined above.
Chapter 2 provides an overview of the evolving global context for center-based engineering research, and Chapter 3 discusses new directions in university-industry interactions. Chapter 4 describes some of the trends in undergraduate and graduate engineering education, and Chapter 5 presents some emerging best practices in translating university research into innovation. Chapter 6 recounts the closing remarks made by John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Chapter 7 presents some of the common themes and additional thoughts from two breakout sessions. Opinions expressed in these chapters are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of the study committee. A full set of slides presented by the speakers as well as videos of their talks is available online.6
6 National Academy of Engineering, “Exploring a New Vision for Center-Based, Multidisciplinary Engineering Research: Meeting Presentations and Video,” April 6, 2016, https://www.nae.edu/Projects/147474/147561.aspx.