The Symposium on Exploring a New Vision for Center-Based, Multidisciplinary Engineering Research concluded with a plenary talk by John Holdren, Science and Technology Advisor to the President and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). He began his remarks by observing that when the NSF ERC program was established in 1984, its focus was on multidisciplinary engineering, research, education, and workforce development in partnership between academia and industry. Today, that focus needs clarifying and updating to reflect the current state of science and engineering research. For example, multidisciplinary engineering research now need to include not only diverse engineering disciplines but also the physical, life, and social sciences. Multidisciplinary also needs to be augmented by interdisciplinary, which Holdren explained means having some individuals who are trained to communicate across disciplinary boundaries and to integrate across disciplinary boundaries. The partnership aspect of the ERCs also need to be expanded beyond those between industry and academia to include government at various levels and civil society as funders, facilitators, and representatives of the user communities who stand to benefit from innovation.
To reflect this new focus, Holdren suggested calling these new enterprises multi-interdisciplinary centers (MIDs), and he listed a number of grand challenges requiring MID solutions. These included the following:
- Ensuring abundant, safe, sustainable food, water, and energy;
- Minimizing harm from changes in climate that are no longer avoidable;
- Engineering materials from abundant elements to substitute for current uses of scarce ones;
- Understanding the brain;
- Combating infectious and vector-borne diseases;
- Defeating cancer;
- Facilitating graceful aging;
- Defending the planet from killer asteroids; and
- Sending humans into space not just to visit but to stay.
Not long after President Obama took office, he released the American Innovation Strategy, developed with input from OSTP and the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) and updated most recently in October 2015. This policy, said Holdren, is built on three pillars. The first, investing in the fundamental building blocks of innovation, includes educating Americans with 21st century skills, strengthening leadership in fundamental research through research funding and nurturing research institutions, building a leading physical infrastructure to support innovation, and developing an advanced information technology ecosystem. The second pillar calls for promoting market-based innovation by accelerating business innovation using the Research and Experimentation tax credit, encouraging innovation-based entrepreneurship, growing investment in ingenuity with effective policy on intellectual property rights, and promoting innovative, open, and competitive markets. The third pillar of the innovation strategy aims to catalyze breakthroughs for national priorities, including unleashing a clean-energy revolution; accelerating biotechnology, nanotechnology, and advanced manufacturing;
developing breakthroughs in space applications; driving breakthroughs in health care technology, and creating a leap forward in educational technologies.
Holdren noted there are a number of cross-cutting aspects of these three pillars that the administration has emphasized in its requests for funding. One has been to increase support for scientists and engineers early in their careers. Another has been to increase the engagement of girls and women as well as underrepresented minorities in STEM fields. A third emphasis has been on commercializing university research, while the fourth has been on multidisciplinary and high-risk, high-return research. Holdren also noted that the administration has already established some MIDs, including five Energy Innovation Hubs and the eight centers of the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, the latter of which have already brought together more than 800 company, university, and nonprofit partners and leveraged a $600 million investment to attract over $1.2 billion in nonfederal investment.
Going forward, there are a number of steps the nation needs to take to scale the successes that MIDs are already producing, said Holdren. These include the following:
- Boosting pre-college STEM inspiration and preparation, particularly in technology and engineering, to encourage more students to pursue careers in STEM fields;
- Accelerating the revolution in undergraduate STEM teaching to promote active learning and early laboratory experience as a means of conveying the excitement that comes from real-world careers in STEM fields, while deemphasizing classroom lectures;
- Growing the interdisciplinary graduate teaching and training pipeline to increase the number of individuals who have the skills to serve as integrators;
- Striving for greater inclusion and success of females and minorities in all STEM fields;
- Propagating the understanding that not all experiments succeed and creating a culture that embraces the idea that knowledge comes from failure as well as success; and
- Overcoming the barriers to adequate investment in basic research.
As a final note, Holdren reminded symposium participants that the legislation that created NSF states that its first responsibility is to promote the progress of science and engineering, which requires investing in fundamental research. “We need to do a better job of educating the public and educating the Congress about what you might call the innovation pipeline,” said Holdren. “Of course, we know it is not really a pipeline, but rather, it is a set of feedbacks between all levels from fundamental research to innovation and scaling. If we fail to sustain the level of societal support for basic research required to meet society’s needs, we will suffer in the long run.”