As part of this study, the committee commissioned a paper aimed at identifying innovative features of foreign centers that might be included in its deliberations.1 The paper, which considered centers in the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, China, Sweden, Canada, and Ireland, was based primarily on “desk research” involving a systematic review of center program documents as well as interviews with some funding agency directors and directors of individual centers. The following are key points that emerged:
- This is a time of experimentation with center models and innovation programs: A repeated theme that emerged from interviews with center program officials was that, in response to the innovation-related trends and drivers, many agencies have been experimenting with new center models (in terms of new missions, functions, or practices) as well as introducing “course corrections” to existing models. One of the consequences of this recent experimentation is that there has not yet been any formal evaluation of these programs.
- There are few substantial and systematic attempts to capture center “best practices.” This makes it more challenging to compare, contrast, and make relative value judgments on particular practices of international center programs.2
- There appears to be some emerging consensus on broad “qualities” that future university-industry research centers should have: challenge-focused, flexible, and networked.
- Challenge-focused (in terms of a greater fraction of centers addressing industrial “needs pull” challenges, rather than just tackling “science push” opportunities);
- Agile and adaptable (in terms of addressing opportunities and barriers to translation, scale-up, and industrialization); and
- Networked and aligned (in terms of collaborating with and leveraging the complementary capabilities and resources of other national, regional, and international innovation actors).
- There is significant consensus about the “added-value” (i.e., collaborations delivering “whole is greater than the sum of the parts” impact) that centers can offer in principle, through real collaboration within
1 E. O’Sullivan, 2016, “A Review of International Approaches to Center-Based, Multidisciplinary Engineering Research,” paper commissioned for this study, available at https://www.nae.edu/Projects/147474.aspx.
2 Several of those interviewed raised the idea of a potential international workshop or forum for agency officials to share their experiences and experiments with new center models and practices.
- integrated research endeavors. However, a number of experts interviewed suggested that centers achieving significant added-value, based on systematic collaboration and truly integrated research endeavors, are extremely rare.
- Several international center programs offer supplementary grants, which can support the integration of new partners. In particular, supplementary funding mechanisms appear to have the potential to facilitate the addition of new industrial partnerships based around translational research project opportunities, which have emerged in the course of the initial research agenda.
- A number of recent center programs appear to be more proactively encouraging center linkages to other national research and innovation institutions. The emphasis on the potential of such linkages often appears in programs with a particular “grand challenge” focus, where the capabilities and infrastructure to address a challenge may be distributed across a wider range of innovation actors.
- The funding levels of a number of international center programs are growing, and in some cases appear to be higher than that of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) engineering research centers (ERCs). Although it is beyond the scope of this project to carry out a careful audit of center budgets, there appears to be a danger that—despite the headline budget numbers—NSF center funding levels may in fact be lower than their international comparators in many cases. There may be merit in carrying out more careful analysis of this issue, in particular paying attention to budget composition, comparison of the funding levels per faculty investigator (or per project), and comparison of funding levels for centers addressing higher technology readiness level research endeavors.
- There is significant consensus across many international programs that effective preproposal planning can lead to stronger proposals (in terms of team formation, commitment, and identifying integrated challenge goals). In particular, structured exercises designed to support proposal development can help ensure more effective identification (and refinement) of collective research goals, and elicit more detailed commitment from industrial partners. Pre-proposal development exercises can also support more effective team formation by more clearly identifying capability and expertise gaps, more clearly revealing the complementary capabilities of potential team members, and creating awareness among potential team members (or collaborators) of individual expectations regarding project outputs and impact. A number of interviewees highlighted the value of more systematic and substantial pre-proposal planning in ensuring real collaboration. In particular, it was suggested that such planning ensures a stronger “social contract” commitment from individual researchers to the center leadership to work on projects addressing collective goals. There are interesting examples of how pre-proposal planning can be facilitated formally by funding agencies, for example through thematic calls which are part of broader initiatives involving community workshops and “roadmapping exercises.”
- The design of review processes and (agency) program management activities for some new center programs are increasingly focused on assessing the quality of “added value” collaboration and impact. Some of those interviewed pointed to (1) the value of pre-proposal planning in delivering more substantial collaborative research proposals, which could be scrutinized in more detail; (2) the potential for supplementary grants to incentivize collaborative behavior and impact; (3) the opportunities to use midterm reviews to ensure appropriate levels of collaboration (and not just count conventional research outputs).
- Student education and training activities within some international centers are putting increasing effort into giving students greater insight into real-world industrial environments and the variety of future career options. Several of these activities, such as research experiences of undergraduates and international research experiences for students, are well known within the U.S. ERC system.
- Facilitating the movement of people between universities and industry is considered an important and valuable function of center programs. Examples identified include: industrial “Professors of Practice,” university-“embedded” industry researchers (or even embedded laboratories), and student placements in industry.
- Many international center programs may have lighter annual reporting requirements relative to the ERC program. Although there is significant variation in practice from program to program in terms of reporting on progress, a number of international center directors interviewed as part of this study quickly volunteered
- that their annual reporting requirements and midterm reviews are not too onerous. It was also suggested by some of those interviewed that management information tools and information technology systems were reducing the burden of annual reporting, making it easier to collect and collate journal articles, conference papers, patents, etc.; and gather information about outreach and impact activities, etc.
- Some international center programs highlight the importance of performance metrics that are tailored to the “impact logic” of the center being evaluated. For example, generating patents is not an objective for some centers because the participating partner/sectors do not have this as part of their business logic. Some international programs give funded centers the freedom to track and report additional novel metrics that are not specified in official reporting forms, but identified by the centers themselves.
- Most of the new (or next generation) center programs explored in this study have longer center lifetimes. Although many international center programs have traditionally been funded for similar lifetimes to NSF ERCs—that is, 5 years with the potential for one further 5-year funding period—several programs have recently extended center lifetimes. A number of those interviewed in the initial scoping phase of this study highlighted the importance of longer center lifetimes for “challenge-led” research, where multidisciplinary teams may take longer to learn how to work together; and where new “tools” and resources to address the challenge have to be developed as part of the center endeavor.