In July 2015, the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to conduct a study on the future of center-based, multidisciplinary engineering research. NSF’s Engineering Research Center (ERC) program had been in operation for 30 years. In many ways, the program had transformed the conduct of university-based engineering research.1
Whereas the primary model for academic researchers after World War II had been groups headed by a single principal investigator (PI),2 NSF recognized that many complex technical and societal problems could only be solved if researchers from multiple institutions and with diverse expertise combined their efforts. With the materials research laboratories in the early 1970s,3 the industry/university cooperative research centers in the early 1980s, the ERCs in the mid-1980s, and the science and technology centers in the late 1980s, NSF has explored a number of center-based research models. One common goal of all of these efforts has been to conduct fundamental research to enhance U.S. economic competitiveness. NSF has also emphasized expanding U.S. workforce capacity through training of students and outreach to underrepresented minorities.
While there are many different models for center-based research, ERCs and similar initiatives generally pursue three goals simultaneously:
- Conducting world-class research,
- Educating and training students who will contribute in meaningful ways to the U.S. research and development enterprise, and
- Promoting technological innovation.
NSF is well aware of the dramatic changes that have occurred in the world and in the research landscape over the past 30 years. For example, the pace of technological change has accelerated dramatically; research efforts around the world are now much more interconnected and involve more international partners; students have many more opportunities for online and experiential learning; and research universities are placing a greater emphasis
1 National Science Foundation (NSF), 2015, Creating New Knowledge, Innovators, and Technologies for Over 30 Years, https://www.nsf.gov/eng/multimedia/NSF_ERC_30th_Anniversary.pdf.
2 D. Kusnezov and W. Jones, 2012, Beyond the endless frontier: A 20th century model faces 21st century realities, APS News 21(3).
3 Materials research laboratories became known as materials research science and engineering centers in 1994.
on entrepreneurship and innovation. These and other changes present opportunities for enhancing the effectiveness and impact of centers.
At the same time, there are challenges to the success of center-based research at universities.4 These include the following:
- University departmental culture and incentives that often favor the individual-PI approach;
- High transaction costs of coordination and communication among researchers at multiple universities, industries, and sponsoring institutions;
- Faculty involvement in centers in addition to their departmental responsibilities can induce “role fatigue”;
- The clash of university and industry timetables, cultures, and bureaucracies; and
- Unique challenges of forming and integrating a multidisciplinary research team, including researchers with different vocabularies, perspectives on the problems, working modes, and geographical dispersion.
In light of these challenges and opportunities, NSF has sought the National Academies’ input on how center-based engineering research might evolve in the coming decades and how NSF might engage these entities most effectively.
The ERCs are intended to develop an innovative, globally competitive, and diverse engineering workforce and are expected to conduct transformational, interdisciplinary engineering research that leads to a system proof-of-concept test bed (technology readiness levels [TRLs] 1-3) and eventually to technological innovation. Strategic planning for technology development is based around the “3-plane diagram” (Appendix C) that proceeds from fundamental research through enabling technologies to system test beds.
NSF funding ($3 million to $5 million per year) is provided to the lead university (with up to four other partner universities) for a relatively long period of up to 10 years. This funding is supplemented by membership fees paid by industry partners and other stakeholders.
Over the 30-year history of the program, ERCs have evolved through three generations, with each succeeding generation featuring an increasing number of infrastructure requirements. Generation 1 (1985-1990) aimed for interdisciplinary, transformational research at a single host university with industry engagement. Generation 2 (1994-2006) required the lead university to engage with multiple partner universities, including a minority-serving university, to develop strategic plans to increase diversity (women, underrepresented minorities, disabled) at all levels and to establish outreach programs to pre-college (K-12) educational institutions. Generation 3 (2008 to the present) also sought to enhance the ERC student’s exposure to international research opportunities by requiring partnerships with foreign universities.
The ERC program has been judged to be successful in many respects. In the education arena, it has been credited with contributing to interdisciplinary research and education at the host institutions. Research has found that ERCs are very successful at creating new or modified, systems-focused, multidisciplinary coursework and curricula, as well as new academic majors and minors.5,6 These educational innovations can attract students from outside the center and have other institution-wide impacts. The ERCs have also outperformed other engineering programs in terms of the percentages of women, Hispanics, and underrepresented minorities participating in the centers.7
4 C. Boardman, D.O. Gray, and D. Rivers, eds., 2013, Cooperative Research Centers and Technical Innovation, Springer-Verlag, New York.
5 C.P. Ailes, I. Feller, and H.R. Coward, 2001, The Impact of Engineering Research Centers on Institutional and Cultural Change in Participating Universities, Final Report, National Science Foundation, Arlington, Va.
6 W. Aung, L. Conrad, A. Donnelly, E. Kannatey-Asibu, T. Martin, and E. Tranter, 2006, Undergraduate and Graduate Education Activities of Current Engineering Research Centers, 2006 Report of the ERC Education Assessment and Dissemination Task Group, http://erc-assoc.org/sites/default/files/topics/2006-7-01_Assessment_2006_Report%20rla_2.pdf.
7 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.
In terms of economic impact, SRI International8 developed detailed estimates of the direct and indirect/induced economic impacts of five centers.9 They found the centers, over their 10-year lifespans, were responsible for between $87 million and $356 million in state and regional impact and between $3 million and $175 million in national impact. The researchers noted that (1) many benefits resulting from ERCs cannot easily be translated into economic terms (e.g., value of trained students, new knowledge, ideas, models, algorithms), especially if one considers impacts only during the 10-year NSF funding life of the center, and (2) a focus on economic benefits alone likely significantly underestimates the broader and larger societal impacts of the centers. Using similar methods of analysis, Roessner et al.10 determined the Microsystems Packaging Research Center at the Georgia Institute of Technology contributed $191 million to the economy of the state of Georgia. Lewis (in 2010)11 and, more recently, NSF (in 2015)12 provide descriptive summaries of many technological innovations that trace their roots to research conducted by the centers. The 2015 NSF report noted that since the program’s inception in 1985, ERCs have created 193 spin-off companies, disclosed more than 2,200 inventions, been awarded 739 patents, and these resulted in 1,339 licenses.
According to NSF, of the 67 ERCs funded from 1985 to 2015 (excluding those that had not yet been in operation 10 years), 31 had graduated successfully (i.e., had not been terminated prior to the end of their 10-year NSF funding), and over 80 percent continue as self-sustaining “ERC-like” centers.13 According to a 2010 survey of graduated centers, most had maintained the ERC culture; that is, they maintained the integration of research, education, and industrial interaction as their organizing principle, although generally with reduced budgets and staff. The loss of the prestige associated with loss of NSF support made it more difficult for these centers to raise money from industry and states. Programs in education and diversity outreach tended to be most difficult to maintain in that environment. All of the graduated centers responding to the survey indicated that the benefits of participating in an ERC were worth the effort, although many cited the burdensome amount of reporting and bureaucratic oversight as significant negatives.14
Although NSF’s ERCs were one of the first examples of the center-based approach to fundamental research, in the intervening years, the center concept has proliferated dramatically, both domestically and internationally. Not only does NSF now support several different kinds of research centers, but so do many U.S. federal agencies (Figure 1.1), and virtually all industrialized countries around the world have followed suit.15
The ERCs occupy a unique niche among federal centers. Perhaps their most significant defining characteristic is their strong focus on education. They also have a relatively long funding time horizon (initial funding for 5 years with possible renewal for another 5 years). In contrast to the “top-down” selection of research topics at centers sponsored by mission agencies, such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) or the
8 SRI International, 2008, National and Regional Economic Impacts of Engineering Research Centers: A Pilot Study, SRI Project P16906, https://www.sri.com/sites/default/files/brochures/erc_impact_summary_report_11_18_08.pdf.
9 Caltech’s Center for Neuromorphic Systems Engineering, Virginia Tech’s Center for Power Electronics Systems, the University of Michigan’s Center for Wireless Integrated Microsystems, Johns Hopkins’ Center for Computer-Integrated Surgical Systems and Technology, and the Georgia Tech/Emory Center for the Engineering of Living Tissue.
10 D. Roessner, S. Mohapatra, and Q. Franco, 2004, The Economic Impact on Georgia of Georgia Tech’s Packaging Research Center, SRI International’s Center for Science, Technology, and Economic Development, P16142, SRI International, Menlo Park, Calif., October.
11 C.S. Lewis, 2010, Engineering Research Centers—Innovations—ERC-Generated Commercialized Products, Processes, and Startups, SciTech Communications LLC, February, http://erc-assoc.org/sites/default/files/topics/ERC_INNOVATIONS_2010_reprint.pdf.
12 NSF, 2015, NSF Engineering Research Centers: Creating New Knowledge, Innovators, and Technology for Over 30 Years, NSF 15-810, http://erc-assoc.org/sites/default/files/download-files/ERC%20Brochure_final%20proof.pdf.
14 J.E. Williams, Jr., and C.S. Lewis, 2010, Post-Graduation Status of National Science Foundation Engineering Research Centers: Report of a Survey of Graduated ERCs, SciTech Communications LLC.
15 Examples include the U.K.’s Centres for Innovative Manufacturing, Germany’s Collaborative Research Centers, Finland’s Strategic Centres for Science, Technology and Innovation, Singapore’s Research Centres of Excellence, and China’s National Engineering Research Centers. See 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.
Department of Energy (DOE), ERC research topics are generally selected from ideas of interest to a core group of academics at the lead university (a “bottom-up” process), although NSF occasionally solicits proposals in broadly defined areas, such as nanotechnology or manufacturing. Consistent with NSF’s mission to sponsor fundamental research and education at universities, the ERCs focus on the early stages of technology development—that is, fundamental research to proof of concept (TRL 1-3).
The benefits to industry of engagement in ERCs—which typically occur through service on an industrial advisory board (IAB)—are generally judged to exceed the cost of membership, according to one survey of members.16 The single most important factor influencing a company’s decision to join an IAB, the survey found, was
16 NSF, 2012, “IAB Involvement in ERCs: Assessing and Strengthening the Role,” presentation at the 2012 ERC Annual Meeting, November 13-16, Bethesda, Md., http://erc-assoc.org/sites/default/files/download-files/IAB%20Role%20in%20ERCs_PeterSeoane_11-2012.pptx.
to follow developments in a field related to the firm’s business. Other benefits accruing to industry from involvement in ERCs include access to ideas and know-how and the ability to identify potential new employees.17 Most industry partners neither achieved nor expected to achieve benefits related to tangible product- or process-oriented outcomes as a result of their association with an ERC.18
In 2007, NSF released a study comparing the ERC program to center programs in China, South Korea, Japan, England, Ireland, Germany, and Belgium.19 The centers were analyzed according to three themes: (1) position on the “innovation continuum” from basic research to product/marketing (similar to TRL level), (2) method of selecting research topics (e.g., “bottom-up” or “top-down”), and (3) approach to international partnerships. Some center programs appeared to have been influenced by the ERC model, while others followed a different path that would be hard to replicate in the university context—for example, Germany’s Fraunhofer Institutes are independent legal entities that conduct applied research with the expressed purpose of assisting German industry and use a top-down process for project selection. The report noted that while most centers in the sample featured international collaborations and partnerships, there were no examples of centers that were international in scope from their inception, with international collaboration as a core function.20
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.21 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. It found that almost every country is asking the same questions as those addressed in this study: What should future center models look like in the face of trends and drivers shaping research priorities and innovation systems? 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. Some of the other key findings of that work are listed in Appendix D.
In response to NSF’s request, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and the National Research Council’s Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences formed the Committee on the Future of Center-Based, Multidisciplinary Engineering Research (committee bios are provided in Appendix A). The committee’s statement of task was as follows:
An ad hoc study committee will develop a vision and high-level, strategic recommendations for the future of NSF-supported, center-scale, multidisciplinary engineering research. The study will be forward-looking—focusing on the forces that are likely to shape engineering research, education, and technological innovation in the future, as well as the associated challenges and opportunities. It will consider and evaluate the most promising models and approaches for multidisciplinary engineering research that can successfully address these challenges and opportunities. NSF’s Engineering Research Centers will be used as prominent examples or cases in the study, but the 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.
17 D. Roessner, D.W. Cheney, and H.R. Coward, 2004, Impact on Industry of Interactions with Engineering Research Centers—Repeat Study. Summary Report. SRI International, December.
18 I. Feller, C.P. Ailes, and J.D. Roessner, 2002, Impacts of research universities on technological innovation in industry: Evidence from engineering research centers, Research Policy 31:457-474.
19 B. Lal, C. Boardman, N.D. Towery, and J. Link, 2007, Designing the Next Generation of NSF Engineering Research Centers: Insights from Worldwide Practice, Institute for Defense Analysis Science and Technology Policy Institute.
20 This may be changing. For example, Singapore’s NSF centers are designed to be international from the start.
21 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.
The products of the committee’s work will be: (1) a rapporteur-authored summary of a symposium, and (2) a final consensus report containing committee findings and strategic recommendations that include inspiring visions for center-scale research in engineering over the next 10-20 years, 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 report will focus on describing visions and opportunities for the future of multidisciplinary center-scale engineering programs, and presenting guiding principles and strategic recommendations for realizing the new visions and opportunities rather than evaluating the current center construct and suggesting evolutionary improvements.
At the committee’s first meeting, the sponsor also suggested four questions that the project should consider:
- What models might most effectively enable breakthrough engineering research and discoveries that require center-scale investment considering the convergence of physical sciences, engineering and life sciences, and social sciences?
- What educational models of center-based engineering research programs are best suited to creating a more diverse, internationally aware, and flexible engineering talent pool that is capable of addressing complex, real-world problems?
- What academic-industry/practitioner partnership models might most effectively promote advances in use-inspired basic and translational research, accelerate technology commercialization, and strengthen the broader innovation ecosystem?
- What metrics can be used to define successes and risks of such center programs?
Although these questions are not part of the committee’s formal statement of task, they helped guide its deliberations.
There are many possible models of center-based research. These include university-based centers, national laboratory-based centers, independent institutes, public-private partnerships, industry consortia, and so on. Centers may have different missions, governance, and management structures; policies governing the relationships among the partners; and emphases on different stages of technological maturity (Figure 1.1).
Given NSF’s longstanding role of funding academic research, the committee has chosen to concentrate its data gathering and analysis on university-based research center models. And while the committee has heeded the admonition in its statement of task not to evaluate the ERCs, it has used the ERC program as a reference point. That is, it has assumed that the three goals—research, education, and innovation—will continue to be the main pursuits of the future centers considered here. Nevertheless, the committee believes that its findings and recommendations are relevant to a variety of types of research centers, not just ERCs.
The committee used a number of methods to gather the information it needed. It held four information-gathering meetings that featured presentations by speakers on topics such as education research in the center context, improving student diversity, and innovative practices of domestic research centers. (Meeting agendas are provided in Appendix B.) Between the meetings, the committee held a series of conference calls with key individuals, also listed in Appendix B. Appendix C discusses key aspects of strategic planning and organizational processes at current ERCs, and Appendix D lists some key findings from a commissioned paper on international centers. Appendix E describes the various domestic research centers that the committee heard from.
On April 6, 2016, the committee convened the 1-day symposium, “Exploring a New Vision for Center-Based, Multidisciplinary Engineering Research,” to inform the broader community about the study and to solicit ideas from speakers and attendees.22 Symposium sessions addressed the following topics:
22 The symposium proceedings was published separately in fall 2016 and is available for free download on the National Academies Press website at http://www.nap.edu (see National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2016, A Vision for the Future of Center-Based Multidisciplinary Engineering Research: Proceedings of a Symposium, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.). Videos of selected presentations from the symposium are available on the project website at https://www.nae.edu/Projects/147474/147561/147730.aspx.
- The evolving global context for center-based engineering research;
- New directions in university-industry interaction;
- Trends in undergraduate and graduate engineering education; and
- Emerging best practices in translating university research into innovation.
The committee also commissioned two papers, one examining foreign research centers23 and the other focusing on the nature of university-industry interactions in the United States,24 including, but not limited to, interactions involving centers. These papers informed the committee’s deliberations.
It is important to maintain a certain humility when opining on how things will be decades hence. The world is quite different than it was 30 years ago, and the committee assumes that it will be different in the coming decades. Even so, in thinking about centers of the future, the committee has attempted to identify trends that seem likely to continue to shape the environment in which future research centers will have to operate.
The committee recognizes that while center-based engineering research has much to contribute, centers cannot do everything. The fraction of U.S. engineering graduates who are touched by the centers is relatively small. So asking centers to take on too much may cause them to lose focus and compromise their primary mission. 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 with the host institutions or other stakeholders.
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 a vision for how the centers can build on these successes to achieve even greater benefits for society.
In constructing its vision for the future of center-based engineering research, the committee made the following assumptions about the context within which such research will take place:
- Engineering will continue to drive innovation. Engineering is an empowering discipline of our times. It will continue to be an essential discipline behind innovations that create economic impact and societal benefit.
Global communication and collaboration will expand. In the future, the world will be far more interconnected across institutional and national boundaries. Software tools for communication and collaboration will continue to become more user-friendly. Development of artificial intelligence tools and the Internet of Things mean that smart machines will be everywhere, connecting researchers with data, instrumentation, and expertise around the world. Discovery and research processes will continue to become globally more transparent, digitally archived and queried, crowd-sourced and enabled by citizen-science, and disseminated in real time.
The phenomenon of team research will continue to become more prevalent. Solving complex problems will increasingly require multidisciplinary teams of researchers collaborating effectively.25
- Convergence in research will become the norm. The greatest research opportunities will increasingly lie at the points where knowledge from formerly distinct disciplines can be combined to create something fundamentally new.26,27 A good example is human performance enhancement (HPE). HPE has left the domain
23 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.
25 National Research Council (NRC), 2015, Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
26 M.C. Roco and W.S. Bainbridge, eds., 2003, Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance: Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology, and Cognitive Science, an NSF/DOC sponsored report, Kluwer Academic Publishers (currently Springer), Dordrecht, The Netherlands, http://www.wtec.org/ConvergingTechnologies/Report/NBIC_report.pdf.
27 M.C. Roco, W.S. Bainbridge, B. Tonn, and G. Whitesides, eds., 2013, Convergence of Knowledge, Technology, and Society: Beyond Convergence of Nano-Bio-Info-Cognitive Technologies, a World Technology Evaluation Center, Inc., panel report, http://www.wtec.org/NBIC2/Docs/FinalReport/Pdf-secured/0A-NBIC2-FinalReport-WTECversion--web.pdf.
of science fiction and is now part of engineering—ranging from prostheses and hearing aids to deep brain stimulation and body armor as well as pharmaceuticals and education and training.28 HPE exemplifies the integration of engineering, materials, information technology, life sciences, medicine, and social sciences.
A recent National Research Council report29 discusses the phenomenon of “convergence” of formerly distinct research fields. The committee foresees that convergence of the natural, behavioral, and social sciences with engineering will enable researchers to address new classes of problems, including human cognitive challenges such as autism and personalized learning. Convergence will also have implications for the organization of research universities in the future.
- The pace of innovation will accelerate. We are in a global innovation economy. As information, communications, and artificial intelligence technologies advance, they create new tools and capabilities. The positive feedback from these developments makes the world increasingly transparent and competitive, further accelerating the pace of innovation.30 Capturing value for the nation will not occur by focusing on U.S. capacity alone; rather, the successful teams will be global and the “winners” will be those who not only have deep knowledge and superior competencies but also who can adapt and execute the fastest, and then sustain a culture of continuous improvement. Policies that promote this dynamism are consistent with this trend; those that inhibit it are not.
U.S. technological lead over the rest of the world—where it still exists—will narrow. In the coming decades, the United States will be in a profoundly more competitive and challenging world. Going forward, it must significantly improve its innovative performance while educating the world’s most innovative workforce. However, the United States will not have the most research, development, and innovation (RD&I) professionals or the most resources. For the United States to win its share of jobs and prosperity, it must leverage its core strengths and work smarter.
Many reviews have detailed areas of technology and innovation in which the United States is no longer leading the world or is falling behind.31 This is, in many ways, a natural consequence of globalization of technology, knowledge, and resources. U.S. companies already invest nearly as much research and development (R&D) funding in Europe and Asia as they do at home,32 and U.S. universities educate large numbers of foreign students in science and engineering fields. While some of these students pursue productive careers in the United States, others increasingly return home and utilize that knowledge to develop their domestic economies.
At the same time, the United States will continue to enjoy certain competitive advantages, including the quality of its top-tier research universities, strong venture capital markets, a large market that is both willing and able to embrace new technologies, and an entrepreneurial culture that develops new opportunities, encourages risk taking, and does not punish initial failure of new ventures.
- Value-creation best practices will continue to be a key to success. Today the top professionals and enterprises have the innovative skills and value-creation 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,33 Lean,34 Six Sigma,35 and
28 Another phrase for the same field is human performance modification (HPM). See, for example, NRC, 2012, Human Performance Modification: Review of Worldwide Research with a View to the Future, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
29 NRC, 2014, Convergence: Facilitating Transdisciplinary Integration of Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Engineering, and Beyond, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
30 Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence, “The Law of Accelerating Returns,” http://www.kurzweilai.net/the-law-of-accelerating-returns, accessed April 10, 2017.
31 See, for example, a series of reports produced by the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, beginning with the 2007 report Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, available at http://www.nas.edu from the National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
32 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.
- the Five Disciplines of Innovation.36 In addition, companies are increasingly using other models, such as the X-Prize37 and Google-X38 “grand challenges” to drive innovation. Online competitions from Kaggle39 and many others are producing impressive outcomes. These programs are showing that large systemic improvements in productivity can be made.40 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.
36 C.R. Carlson and W.W. Wilmot, 2006, Innovation: The Five Disciplines for Creating What Customers Want, Crown Publishing Group, New York.
40 NRC, 2015, Making Value for America: Embracing the Future of Manufacturing, Technology, and Work, The National Academies Press Washington, D.C.