The future security, economic growth, and competitiveness of the United States depend on its capacity to innovate. Major sources of innovative capacity are the new knowledge and trained students generated by U.S. research universities. However, many of the complex technical and societal problems the United States faces cannot be addressed by the traditional model of individual university research groups headed by a single principal investigator. Instead, they can only be solved if researchers from multiple institutions and with diverse expertise combine their efforts. The National Science Foundation (NSF), among other federal agencies, began to explore the potential of such center-scale research programs in the 1970s and 1980s; in many ways, the NSF Engineering Research Center (ERC) program is its flagship program in this regard.
The 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 at $3 million to $5 million per year 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. ERCs are credited with producing more than 12,000 engineering graduates2 with interdisciplinary training and entrepreneurial skills, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars of regional and national economic benefits.3
However, NSF is well aware that the world has changed in dramatic ways in the past 30 years and will increasingly do so in the future. To ensure that the ERCs continue to be a source of innovation, economic development, and educational excellence, NSF commissioned 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. In response, the National Academies established the Committee on a Vision for the Future of Center-Based, Multidisciplinary Engineering Research (Appendix A) to perform the study.
2 NSF, 2015, Creating New Knowledge, Innovators, and Technologies for Over 30 Years, https://www.nsf.gov/eng/multimedia/NSF_ERC_30th_Anniversary.pdf.
3 SRI International, 2008, National and Regional Economic Impacts of Engineering Research Centers: A Pilot Study, SRI Project P16906, http://www.sri.com/sites/default/files/brochures/erc_impact__final_report_11_18_08.pdf.
SELECTED MAJOR FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Below, in this summary, are presented selected findings and recommendations from five key areas discussed in the report: (1) the committee’s overall vision for the future of center-based engineering research; (2) the skills needed for effective center leadership; (3) opportunities to enhance engineering education through the centers; (4) expanding diversity and public outreach; and (5) overall goals and metrics. More detailed findings and recommendations on these and other topics may be found in the body of the report.
Vision for the Centers
In the second decade of the millennium, new technologies are fusing the physical, digital, and biological worlds in what has been called the Fourth Industrial Revolution.4 Examples include advances in health care, such as new diagnostic and therapeutic modalities, demonstrations of sustainable clean energy, robotics, unprecedented communications and connectivity, and artificial intelligence (AI) to augment human capabilities. The world also faces a complex set of global challenges: threats to the environment and national security, new diseases and health risks, and a rapidly changing world economy and competitive landscape.
Today’s engineers stand on the cusp of dramatic advances in materials, information, robotics, energy, transportation, manufacturing, agriculture, and health. These advances can propel the world into a new age of sustainable prosperity through technological innovation coupled with its thoughtful application and use for the benefit of society.
Realizing this promise and finding solutions to complex problems such as those mentioned above requires a new approach to research that brings together teams of experts from multiple disciplines who collaborate deeply—an approach referred to as “convergence.”5
FINDING 2-1: This is a time of enormous opportunity in which exponentially expanding knowledge in previously distinct fields can now be combined in new ways to create innovations of great value for society.
A good illustration of convergence is the human performance enhancement (HPE),6 which integrates engineering, materials, information technology, life sciences, medicine, and social sciences. An example is robotic ecosystems that allow disabled people to regain mobility.
Today’s ERCs are intensely focused on early-stage development of promising new technologies with broad application. Here, the committee proposes a strategic new direction for the program focused on tackling larger, grand-challenge-like problems whose solutions offer the greatest benefits for society. Moving in this direction raises new challenges associated with leading and managing the diverse research teams needed, and it will require a disciplined, systematic effort to ensure that the teams work in concert to maximize the value created for society.7 Thus, the new direction proposed here has two components: a “what” and a “how.” The “what” is a shift from the current focus on developing a promising new technology area to addressing a high-impact societal or technological need. The “how” is the systematic use of team-research and value-creation best practices to focus the effort and stimulate the creation of new, valuable innovations. This report builds on the recommendations of three previous National Academies products: (1) the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) Grand Challenges,8
4 K. Schwab, 2016, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, World Economic Forum, Geneva, Switzerland.
5 National Research Council (NRC), 2014, Convergence: Facilitating Transdisciplinary Integration of Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Engineering, and Beyond, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
6 Another phrase for the same field is human performance modification (HPM). See, for example, National Research Council, 2012, Human Performance Modification: Review of Worldwide Research with a View to the Future, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
7 Discussions of value creation in the literature tend to focus solely on economic value. In this report the committee defines value creation more broadly, in terms of value for society. Generally, the two go hand-in-hand; for example, the Internet, which was initially developed as a research tool, opened up access to information for the general public, as well as opportunities for personal expression and social interaction, while also transforming the business landscape.
(2) Convergence: Facilitating Transdisciplinary Integration of Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Engineering, and Beyond,9 and (3) Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science.10 The committee believes all three of these topics should be incorporated into engineering centers of the future.
The latter report discusses best practices for enhancing team-research11 initiatives, which include the use of task analytic methods to identify knowledge, skills, and attitudes required for effective team performance (Box 2.4).12 Regarding value-creation best practices, top professionals and enterprises today have the innovative skills and processes to identify and systematically develop major new opportunities. Those that do, such as Apple, Google, P&G, and IDEO, are all leaders in their fields. Improved innovation processes are being implemented, such as Agile,13 Lean,14 Six Sigma,15 the Five Disciplines of Innovation,16 and “Special Forces” Innovation.17 In addition, companies are increasingly using other models, such as the X-Prize18 and Google-X19 “grand challenges” to drive innovation. Online competitions from Kaggle20 and many others are producing impressive outcomes. These programs are showing that large systemic improvements in productivity can be made.21
While many of these systems were designed to be used in a corporate context as a better way to achieve business objectives, they can be adapted to a university center environment. For example, one value-creation best practice is for team members to present value propositions for their thrusts that include the need being addressed, the proposed approach, the costs and benefits, and the status of the competition. These value propositions are then critiqued by their teammates (Box 2.5). Developing a U.S. workforce where engineering graduates understand and apply these skills will allow the United States to continue to lead in the creation of new, high-value global innovations.
The committee defines the phrase convergent engineering as a deeply collaborative, team-based engineering approach for defining and solving important, complex societal problems. All necessary disciplines, skills, and capabilities are brought together to address a specific research opportunity. It is distinguished by resolutely using team-research and value-creation best practices to rapidly and efficiently integrate the unique contributions of individual members and develop valuable and innovative solutions for society.
RECOMMENDATION 2-1: The National Science Foundation should re-invigorate the Engineering Research Center concept by addressing grand-challenge-like problems whose solutions offer the greatest benefits for society and by adhering to the use of team-research and value-creation best practices, fewer administrative burdens, and greater investment and prestige to attract the superb, diverse talent required.
Examples of appropriate problems could include the 14 grand challenges identified by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE)22 and other organizations such as the Millennium Project,23 the Bill and Melinda Gates
9 NRC, 2014, Convergence: Facilitating Transdisciplinary Integration of Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Engineering, and Beyond, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
10 NRC, 2015, Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
11 In this report, which is about engineering research, the committee chose to use the phrase “team research” rather than adopt the earlier NRC report’s phrase “team science,” but the principles are the same.
12 NRC, 2015, Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
16 C.R. Carlson and W.W. Wilmot, 2006, Innovation: The Five Disciplines for Creating What Customers Want, Crown Publishing Group, New York.
17 R.E. Dugan and K.J. Gabriel, 2013, “Special Forces” Innovation: How DARPA attacks problems, Harvard Business Review, October, https://hbr.org/2013/10/special-forces-innovation-how-darpa-attacks-problems.
21 NRC, 2015, Making Value for America: Embracing the Future of Manufacturing, Technology, and Work, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
23 The Millennium Project, “Challenges,” http://millennium-project.org/millennium/challenges.html, accessed September 23, 2016.
Foundation,24 and the six “research big ideas” identified by NSF.25 By placing bold bets on a small number of well-funded, prestigious centers focused on engineering solutions to society’s greatest challenges, NSF will create excitement in the engineering community that will attract the best students, faculty, and industry partners.
To emphasize the ambition and the bold new direction of these center-scale investments led by engineering, they should be given a new name, possibly convergent engineering research centers (CERCs).
Specifically, these new CERCs will:
- Address the grand challenges facing society by leveraging the convergence of science, engineering, medical, and—importantly—social science disciplines to accelerate the discovery of new knowledge, create new methods and tools, and develop new products;
- Embrace the best practices of team research and value creation, using advances in information technology (IT), AI, social media, and virtual reality to enable deep collaboration that accelerates research advances and innovation in an increasingly interconnected world;
- Leverage the emerging fields of data science and analytics to inform research directions and enhance team research;
- Create new engineering platforms and tools upon which others will build, accelerating the pace of research and innovation;
- Attract the best students, faculty, and industry collaborators, who will accelerate translation and innovation in a dynamic and exciting experiential learning environment;
- Provide students with the full range of skills they need to be leaders in an increasingly interconnected and multidisciplinary world; and
- Develop meaningful domestic and international partnerships with industry, government, nonprofit and philanthropic organizations, and the venture capital community to bring about major advances.
No ingredient is more important to the success of a center than the quality of its leadership. Leaders of CERCs will face unique challenges.
FINDING 3-1: Leaders of CERCs will face unique challenges due to the centers’ scale, from the need to integrate knowledge from diverse disciplines and perspectives and from geographically dispersed institutions and research teams.
RECOMMENDATION 3-1: In order to give the convergent engineering research centers (CERCs) the best opportunity to achieve their goal of deep research collaboration toward solving grand-challenge-like problems, the National Science Foundation should ensure that CERC leaders are accomplished and recognized leaders of large, complex programs and are skilled in the application of best practices in team research and value creation.
A recent National Academies report devotes a chapter to strategies appropriate for leading diverse science teams.26
25 American Institute for Physics, 2016, “NSF Director Córdova Proposes Nine Big Ideas,” June 14, https://www.aip.org/fyi/2016/nsfdirector-c%C3%B3rdova-proposes-nine-big-ideas-foundation.
26 NRC, 2015, Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C. Chapter 6.
Engineering education is constantly evolving. There is a national trend in engineering education toward more experiential courses, “maker” facilities, design institutes, and entrepreneurship.27 In the future, the committee believes that most if not all engineering schools will have design institutes and entrepreneurship programs. The challenge for CERCs will not be to reinvent these innovations in engineering teaching and learning, but to build upon the best of these methods and enable the CERC-affiliated students to exercise the skills they learn in these programs developed by the host institutions.
FINDING 3-3: Ongoing changes in engineering education include a greater emphasis on collaborative, team-based experiential learning and a focus on creativity and design activities and entrepreneurship, as well as ethical aspects of proposed solutions—all of which better prepare students to succeed in center-like, multidisciplinary environments throughout their careers.
RECOMMENDATION 3-3a: Centers should offer students opportunities to exercise design and entrepreneurship skills obtained through their departmental coursework by providing experiences such as internships, exposure to industrial and public sector expertise through collaborations, workshops, seminars, personnel exchanges, and opportunities to discuss the ethical dimensions of their work.
Current ERCs provide students with some of these opportunities, and these should be continued. CERCs would also give students a deeper exposure to team-research and value-creation best practices, which will serve them well throughout their careers.
Diversity and Public Outreach
Studies have shown that research teams with broader cultural knowledge and perspectives can produce more innovative and robust solutions to science and engineering problems.28 A more diverse engineering workforce is imperative when addressing complex problems with worldwide societal impacts, and the diversity of the U.S. talent pool can become a competitive advantage. Many studies have pointed to the need to expand U.S. engineering workforce capacity and have proposed strategies for attracting more women and underrepresented minorities to the profession, as well as education outreach to K-12 grade levels to improve understanding and appreciation of engineering. The ERCs have taken this challenge seriously, and, by means of policies such as requiring the lead university to partner with a minority-serving university, have outperformed other engineering programs in terms of the percentages of women, Hispanics, and underrepresented minorities participating in the centers.29 The committee believes that continued emphasis on expanding diversity and public outreach is good both for accomplishing the center mission and for the country.
FINDING 3-4: The goal of expanding diversity in science and engineering is not only good for the creativity and productivity of research teams, it is good for expanding the capacity of the United States to innovate and compete.
RECOMMENDATION 3-4: The National Science Foundation should insist that convergent engineering research centers continue to build upon the success of engineering research centers in expanding diversity of the engineering workforce.
27 See, for example, T. Byers, T. Seelig, S. Sheppard, and P. Weilerstein, 2013, Entrepreneurship: Its role in engineering education, The Bridge 43(2):35-40; and S.K. Gilmartin, A. Shartrand, H.L. Chen, C. Estrada, and S. Sheppard, 2016, Investigating entrepreneurship program models in undergraduate engineering education, International Journal of Engineering Education 32(5A):2048-2065.
29 NSF, 2015, “ERC Solicitation 15-589 Webinar: Guidance for Preliminary Proposal Development,” August 31, https://www.nsf.gov/attachments/135960/public/NSF15-589_ERCwebinar.pdf.
CERCs should have an advantage over ERCs in this regard, due to their focus on grand-challenge-like problems with great societal impact. Research has shown that if programs emphasize engineering as a source of societal benefit rather than focusing more narrowly on technology per se, they have increased appeal to women and underrepresented minority students.30,31,32,33 This is borne out, for example, in the enrollment statistics of the NAE’s Grand Challenges Scholars Program (Box 3.1) and in Purdue University’s EPICS service-learning program.34 Grand-challenge-like problems are also international in scope and should attract international students and faculty to CERCs.
Most major universities have well-established offices whose aim is to promote diversity and K-12 outreach, staffed by experienced professionals, and there is a body of scholarly literature on these subjects. CERCs should take advantage of these resources and expertise for help in designing their diversity and outreach programs.
Overall Goals and Metrics
From its inception, the ERC program has had the goal of enhancing U.S. industrial competitiveness by transferring intellectual value and technology developed in the centers into the commercial sphere. NSF has also sought to create economic value indirectly through the training of a diverse group of students with the skills to innovate. The committee believes that the top-level goal of future CERCs should be to solve critical societal problems with engineering research and to equip students with the fundamental knowledge on how to deliver those solutions to society. This goal of maximizing societal benefit will generally go hand-in-hand with creation of far-reaching economic value.
Over time, one indicator that a center has delivered societal benefit is that the results of the center are picked up by industry, and then industry makes economic advances that can be traced back to the centers. Thus, one can use economic value delivered as one metric—but not the only one—to determine if a CERC (or the NSF centers generally) have delivered societal benefit. The committee is agnostic about whether the larger goal of delivering maximum societal benefit is served by centers seeking to translate proprietary technologies to the private sector by either licensing or forming startups, or by giving away their intellectual content through open sourcing. As one example, the Linux operating system is open source, but has created huge economic value.
The goal of metrics is to measure outcomes or impacts, not just outputs. Metrics used to measure center performance in the past have included the following: number of students graduated, number of papers published, number of patents issued, licenses, startups, and so on. These metrics are essentially outputs that may or may not indicate true societal impact. Also, in many cases the numbers can be “gamed,” and reliance on these numbers can foster a “box-checking” mentality that is not helpful.
FINDING 4-3: Metrics currently used to evaluate centers tend to focus on numbers of students graduated, papers published, patents awarded, and so on. These output numbers do not necessarily measure the true impact of the center, can be gamed, and may encourage a box-checking mentality.
RECOMMENDATION 4-3: The National Science Foundation should develop metrics that track the impacts of center activities, not just the outputs. Examples might include the placement of graduated students in positions of influence or evidence that intellectual value developed in the center is widely used.
30 I.J. Busch-Vishniac and J.P. Jarosz, 2004, Can diversity in the undergraduate engineering population be enhanced through curricular change?, Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering 10:255-281.
31 W.A. Wulf and G.M.C. Fisher, 2002, A makeover for engineering education, Issues in Science and Technology On-Line, Spring.
32 R. Williams, 2003, Education for the profession formerly known as engineering, Chronicle of Higher Education, January 24.
33 D. Wormley, 2003, “Engineering Education and the Science and Engineering Workforce,” pp. 40-46 in Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences, and National Academy of Engineering, Pan-Organizational Summit on the U.S. Science and Engineering Workforce: Meeting Summary, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
34 W. Oakes, M-C Hsu, and C. Zoltowski, 2015, “Insights from a First-Year Learning Community to Achieve Gender Balance,” 2015 IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference (FIE), doi:10.1109/FIE.2015.7344114.
Admittedly, metrics of impact—such as placement of students into positions of influence rather than the number of students graduated, or indicators of widespread use of software or adoption of standards rather than the number of programs or standards produced—are more challenging to measure and may only be apparent on longer timescales. Fortunately, emerging technologies such as business analytics and metrics platforms, already in use in major corporations, should be able to help capture this information automatically and thus reduce data gathering and reporting burdens.
FINDING 6-3b: Emerging collaboration platforms allow real-time tracking and longitudinal follow-up of research activities at the centers and students, faculty, and collaborators who have been engaged at the centers, all with less burden on the centers.
The committee commissioned a review of international center programs, which indicated that some 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 partners or sectors do not have patents as part of their business logic. Some international programs give funded centers the freedom to identify, track, and report additional novel metrics that are not specified in official reporting forms.35
RECOMMENDATION 6-3: Metrics should be minimal, essential, and aligned with center milestones and processes and should be defined in a center’s strategic plan. The convergent engineering research centers should use state-of-the-art web-based collaboration platforms, such as performance dashboards, to amplify team collaboration and simplify reporting requirements.
Appropriate performance metrics will vary according to the stage of maturity of the centers and on whether the chosen research problem is related more to direct economic benefit or to broader societal benefit. Very few performance metrics of substance can be obtained during the first 1 to 3 years of a CERC’s existence.36 That is because the teams are just beginning the research. The creation of significant new papers and commercial innovations from a CERC’s initiatives during that period is unlikely. The best practice is therefore to measure how well the teams are using the team-research and value-creation methodologies, including metrics for collaboration, such as jointly authored papers or conference presentations, weekly discussions with colleagues, and quarterly all-hands forums.
FINDING 6-4: Appropriate performance metrics for CERCs will vary according to their time in operation and the type of research problem they have chosen to address.
RECOMMENDATION 6-4: Early in the life of a convergent engineering research center (CERC), performance metrics should be based on adherence to team-research and value-creation best practices. Later in the CERC’s National Science Foundation funding life, metrics should be based on the CERC’s impact on the economic, security, or societal domains as laid out in its strategic plan.
There are many ways that CERCs might operate and be organized. The most appropriate model will depend on the type of research problem chosen. There will be no optimal, one-size-fits-all approach. In this report, the committee describes three possible models NSF may want to consider: a grand-challenge-based model; a prize-based innovation model; and a federal-state-local partnership model. This set of models is by no means comprehensive, but all of them are consistent with aspects of the committee’s vision. They focus on big, complicated problems whose solutions will bring large societal or economic impacts. They depend on the convergence of knowledge
35 E. O’Sullivan, 2016, “A Review of International Approaches to Center-Based, Multidisciplinary Engineering Research,” a commissioned paper for this study, available at https://www.nae.edu/Projects/147474.aspx.
36 Exceptions may arise when centers grow out of pre-existing collaborative university-industry research efforts.
from different disciplines and on deeply collaborative and diverse research teams. And they will require NSF resources to be leveraged with other resources, including those from other federal agencies, states, international players, and the private sector. CERCs are an integral part of the overall U.S. science and technology enterprise. In today’s environment, however, NSF alone cannot be expected to meet all of the financial or the intellectual requirements for this critical initiative.
The Grand Challenge-Based Model. For this example, the committee chose one of NAE’s Grand Challenges: “advancing personalized learning.” By design, grand-challenge-like initiatives create excitement and spark imagination and creativity. They transcend national boundaries, cultures, and demographics and have universal appeal. It is desirable, therefore, that part of the future CERC portfolio focuses on grand-challenge-like problems to proactively engage the global engineering research and education community.
The scope of a grand challenge problem suggests that a single CERC will not suffice to address it fully. The challenge will likely need to be broken down into critical subcomponents that are addressed separately, or alliances will need to be formed with other centers working on related problems. For example, a CERC devoted to advancing personalized learning could profitably leverage or interact with a center focused on the NAE Grand Challenge “reverse engineering the brain.” Whether or not this kind of alliance is undertaken, targeted collaborations with other research centers in the United States and internationally would certainly be needed.
The Prize-Based Innovation Model. Historically, a key catalyst in the U.S. innovation ecosystem has been the use of properly posed prizes and competitions to accelerate imagination, invention, innovation, investment, and impact. These prizes often inspire and attract a new generation of technology innovators to the field of engineering to solve technical problems with the hope of being the first team to achieve the competition milestones and claim a cash prize.
CERC leadership teams would manage the prize competition in partnership with NSF to achieve a particular research or translational objective or technical milestone that would constitute one technical thrust within the broader center mission. Funding would be provided by third-party partners (e.g., venture capitalists) who have a vested interest in seeing the technology mature to spur innovation and entrepreneurship. The example given in this report is Elon Musk’s Hyperloop Pod Design Competition.
The Federal-State-Local Partnership Model. NSF has an opportunity to inspire a new funding model that focuses on specific city, state, or regional economic interests driven by engineering ideas and problem solving. From NSF’s point of view, these partnerships would raise CERC funding to levels that would attract diverse talent and stimulate local or regional innovation ecosystems. From a city or state’s point of view, the partnership would take advantage of not only the cachet of NSF funding but also its support for the talent and capability in a given engineering area and its ability to guarantee the quality of the “product” through an independent review process that focuses on value added or impact on local economic development for the state investment.
The example the committee chose is a CERC that would develop practical approaches to dealing with the joint issues of sea level rise and extreme weather events for coastal cities. A wide range of disciplines would be involved, such as civil engineering, hydrology, meteorology, data science, law, architecture, political science, and social science. Public sector partners would include city, county, and state agencies. Private-sector partners could include companies dealing with insurance, real estate development, and property management. NSF’s investment would be augmented by contributions from a city, state, or consortium of states.
In some respects, the committee’s vision for the new CERCs may sound a lot like the original description of the ERCs quoted in the second paragraph of this Summary. The committee applauds the successes achieved by the ERC program and believes that many capable people at NSF and at the centers have worked hard to develop valuable practices that should continue to evolve in the program going forward. In this report, the committee offers
TABLE S.1 Differences Between Engineering Research Centers (ERCs) and Convergent Engineering Research Centers (CERCs)
|Multidisciplinary research primarily focused on technological innovation.||Transdisciplinary research focused on high-impact societal challenges, exploiting technological convergence and especially bringing in the social sciences as appropriate.|
|Emphasis on creating economic value by enhancing U.S. innovation ecosystems.||Emphasis on maximizing societal value, which in almost all cases will lead to creation of great economic value.|
|Strategic planning based on proceeding from fundamental research through enabling technology research to systems research (test beds).||Strategic planning based on systematic application of best practices in value creation.|
|Researchers and students collaborate through regular meetings and discussions.||Deep research collaboration using both in-person meetings and virtual technology platforms and the best practices in team research.|
|Approximately 20 centers operating at any one time with NSF funding supplemented by industry partner memberships as well as state and local funds.||Larger center budgets through reducing the number of centers or supplementary funding from other federal agencies, international governments, states, the private sector, or foundation support.|
|One basic structural model||Experimentation with various structural models|
|Students benefit from interaction with center faculty from multiple disciplines and industry mentors.||Students gain experience with best practices in convergent engineering research.|
|Pre-proposal process helps to ensure that the final proposal meets all requirements.||Rigorous, staged pre-proposal process to refine the problem to be addressed and choose the right teams, including industry partners.|
|Center directors must answer to numerous boards and site visit recommendations.||Center directors given more authority and autonomy from NSF and site visit groups.|
|Extensive reporting requirements for annual reports and post-graduation plans.||Lean reporting requirements and use of software tools to capture outcomes.|
|Performance metrics largely based on outputs (numbers).||Performance metrics based on outcomes and impacts.|
|Sunset after 10 years but with the expectation of the center continuing with other support.||Opportunity to re-compete after 10 years if transformational results are being achieved.|
a vision for how the centers can build on these successes to achieve even greater benefits for society. The major differences between the proposed CERCs and current ERCs are listed in Table S.1.
The committee recognizes that while center-based engineering research has much to contribute, centers cannot be expected to do everything. Asking centers to take on too much may cause them to lose focus and compromise their primary mission—conducting world-class research. In this report, the committee suggests—in multiple contexts—that the host institution should play a significant role in providing educational and administrative support, diversity program planning, and other support functions to enable the CERC to focus on its core mission. Many of these functions already exist at universities, and CERCs should take advantage of this existing infrastructure.
Accordingly, the committee has made an effort to distinguish between responsibilities that should legitimately be put on the centers and those that should be shared more broadly with the host institutions or other stakeholders. For example, the committee’s expectation is that CERCs will continue the valuable work in expanding diversity and education outreach that ERCs have started. However, these functions are also embedded (or should be) in the host institutions. The CERC should take advantage of the expertise and resources of the host institution to help design its diversity and outreach programs.37 The host institution must have “skin in the game” and share responsibility for
37 According to a 2015 NSF Webinar, this partnering is already encouraged as part of the ERC’s Strategic Inclusion Plan (NSF, 2015, “ERC Solicitation 15-589 Webinar: Guidance for Preliminary Proposal Development,” August 31, https://www.nsf.gov/attachments/135960/public/NSF15-589_ERCwebinar.pdf).
these programs if the CERC is to be sited there. This should be one consideration in the proposal evaluation. The CERC diversity and education outreach programs must integrate into the host university infrastructure. Similarly, the CERCs need not be expected to re-invent courses in student innovation, entrepreneurship, and ethics, which are expected to become part of the standard curriculum in engineering schools nationwide. Rather, the CERCs will provide opportunities for students to exercise the principles they learn in their regular coursework.
A final example relates to education research. The relatively long center-funding time horizon (up to 10 years) provides opportunities for longitudinal studies that can collect data on which education initiatives work, and which do not, in a center context. While the committee believes such studies would be valuable, it also believes that they should be carried out in collaboration with the host university or outside institutions specializing in education research.