There are many ways that convergent engineering research centers (CERCs) might operate and be organized. The most appropriate structure will depend on the type of research problem chosen and other circumstances. There may be no optimal, one-size-fits-all approach. In this chapter, the committee describes three possible models the National Science Foundation (NSF) may want to consider: a grand-challenge-based model, a prize-based model, and a federal-state-local partnership model.
All of the models discussed here would likely involve mandatory cost sharing on the part of the center research partners. In order to avoid distortion of the type of research it funds, NSF follows clear guidelines from the National Science Board regarding mandatory cost sharing, considering it to be a requirement for eligibility for an award, but not part of the review process for the award.1 There are also limits on the amount of cost sharing that NSF can ask for. The engineering research centers (ERC) program is one of several already approved for mandatory cost sharing.2
These three models have very different organizational structures and management challenges. What they have in common is a commitment to solving problems of great societal significance and strict adherence to team-research and value-creation best practices. By studying different models, additional best practices can be identified and applied to future CERCs.
Scientific and technological advances of the past few decades have created the real possibility that solutions to many complex problems, up to now considered unsolvable in the near term, are within reach. A manifestation of this expectation is the promotion by certain organizations and communities of the idea of “grand challenges.” The U.S. Agency for International Development, for instance, has launched eight Grand Challenges for Development,3 one of which is stopping the spread of the Zika virus and outbreaks of other infectious diseases. The American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare has proposed 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work,4 including the
1 National Science Foundation, “Implementation of the 2nd NSB Cost Sharing Report: NSF Revised Cost Sharing Policy Statement,” https://www.nsf.gov/bfa/dias/policy/csdocs/principles.pdf, accessed November 9, 2016.
4 American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare, “Grand Challenges for Social Work,” http://aaswsw.org/news/grand-challengesfor-social-work-policy-actions-and-advice-on-advancing-social-policy/, accessed September 21, 2016.
goal of stopping family violence. And, as previously noted and of particular relevance to this report, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) has outlined 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering (Box 2.2).
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 a CERC with a grand-challenge focus proactively engage the global engineering research and education community. Such engagement might involve crowdsourcing and the use of open, Internet-based educational and research platforms; institutional interactions between allied programs or institutions in different countries; exchanges of scientists or educators; and the sharing of facilities or other critical infrastructure.
What might a CERC based on a grand-challenge-like problem look like? Consider the NAE Grand Challenge “advancing personalized learning” (Box 7.1).
The large scope of a grand challenge problem would be both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of this type of model. As mentioned, these problems would attract a diverse, motivated group of students and faculty from many countries, and would likely attract new sources of funding. Managing such a diverse and geographically distributed group would be a major challenge, as would maintaining focus on an achievable set of goals. One of the major societal benefits of such an effort might be to understand how best to approach the problem, and how to parse it into pieces that can be meaningfully addressed in an engineering center context.
The scope of a grand challenge suggests that a single CERC would not suffice to address it fully. In addition, there would be points where research programs on different grand challenges overlap. For example, a CERC devoted to improving personalized learning could profitably leverage or interact with a center focused on the NAE Grand Challenge to “reverse engineer the brain.” Whether or not this kind of alliance is undertaken, targeted collaborations with other research centers in the United States and around the world would certainly be needed. The biannual Global Grand Challenges Summits,5 which bring together leaders in engineering, industry, and government from the United States, the United Kingdom, and China to share information on progress toward addressing the 14 NAE challenges, are a potential platform for building cross-national collaborations. In addressing its educational mission, a CERC based on an NAE Grand Challenge would naturally leverage the Grand Challenges Scholars Program (Box 3.1), whose five components6 mirror key elements of the committee’s vision for the future of engineering research. In the grand challenge context, NSF may wish to consider a truly international center—that is, one that is international in scope from its inception, with international collaboration as a core function—although there appear to be few if any examples of centers structured this way.7
The future security, economic growth, and competitiveness of the United States depend on its capacity to innovate. Americans believe that it is possible to create jobs by doing what the United States does well, which is cultivating the creativity and innovative processes developed by its people. Innovation and value creation have historically kept the United States at the forefront of technology advances that have been the keys to its national security policy and economic growth. A crucial catalyst in this innovation ecosystem has been the use of properly posed prizes and competitions to accelerate imagination, invention, innovation, investment, and impact.
In the Defense Authorization Act of fiscal year 2000,8 Congress authorized the following: “The Secretary of Defense, acting through the Director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency [DARPA], may carry out a program to award cash prizes in recognition of outstanding achievements in basic, advanced, and applied research, technology development, and prototype development that have the potential for application to the performance of the military missions of the Department of Defense.” In 2003, DARPA management determined that the prize authority granted by Congress should be used to accelerate the development of autonomous ground vehicles that could one day be used to transport cargo and other military supplies into combat zones without endangering the lives of human drivers. The contest was also DARPA’s first major attempt to use prize money as an incentive for innovation within the research community. The first DARPA Grand Challenge offered a $1 million prize for the fastest autonomous vehicle to complete a difficult course through the desert in less than 10 hours. Although no vehicle completed the course or even got very far, this first Grand Challenge is considered a success by many for the interest and spirit the event created. The DARPA Grand Challenge has provided a template for the use of prize-induced challenges to advance basic, advanced, and applied research, technology development, and systems engineering.
5 The third summit, hosted by the National Academy of Engineering, will take place in Washington, D.C., in July 2017.
6 The five components are as follows: hands-on project or research experience, interdisciplinary curriculum, entrepreneurship, global dimension, and service learning (see National Academy of Engineering, “NAE Grand Challenges Scholars Program,” http://www.engineeringchallenges.org/GrandChallengeScholarsProgram.aspx, accessed May 24, 2017).
7 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, Arlington, Va.
8 Public Law 106-65, Section 244.
President Obama, as part of the America Competes Act,9 strongly encouraged every federal agency to use prizes to solve grand-challenge-like problems as a means of spurring creativity and innovation. In addition to the continuing programs at DARPA, other federal agencies that have sponsored research inducement prizes include the Department of Energy, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Department of Health and Human Services.10
In June 2016, as part of its Smart City Challenge, the Department of Transportation (DOT) awarded more than $40 million to Columbus, Ohio, to prototype the future of urban transportation; 78 cities competed for the award. The city’s plan will also leverage over $100 million in private resources.11
A 2007 National Research Council (NRC) report12 offered the following: “The committee recommends that [NSF] take an experimental approach to implementing its congressional directive to award such prizes, especially during the program’s formative period.” Serving on the study committee was Erich Bloch, under whose leadership as director of NSF, the ERC program was begun. An NAE report on how NSF and other federal agencies might implement such an approach is Concerning Federally Sponsored Inducement Prizes in Engineering and Science.13
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. One well-known example is Elon Musk’s Hyperloop Pod Design Competition (Box 7.2).
CERCs could leverage the prize/competition model not only to accelerate and translate research discoveries, but also to encourage participation by diverse teams outside the existing CERC core team members to address real-world problems.
A 1999 NAE workshop report14 describes several ways in which the federal prize competitions could be funded and administered: “agency funded and administered; agency administered and privately funded; agency initiated and privately funded and administered; or joint agency-private sector funded and administered.” Here, the committee is proposing the second option: agency-administered and privately funded. CERC leadership teams would manage the competition in partnership with NSF to achieve a particular research or translational objective or technical milestone within the context of a larger NSF-funded research program. By analogy to the example given in Box 7.2, the hypothetical CERC might oversee a prize competition to design a new vehicle as part of its broader mission to design a new transportation system. Funding for the prize would be provided by third-party partners (e.g., venture capitalists) who would have a vested interest in seeing the technology mature. One disadvantage of this approach is that third-party funding could complicate budgeting and auditing of how these monies are spent.
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. This model would support the bottom-up identification of research focus, described in the Chapter 2 section “Problem Focus.” From NSF’s point of view, these partnerships would leverage CERC funding to levels that would attract the best talent and stimulate innovation for local or regional ecosystems. From a city or state point of view, the partnership would take advantage not only of the cachet of NSF funding, but also of its support for talent and capability in a given engineering area and its ability
9 Public Law 110-69, signed into law by President George W. Bush on August 9, 2007.
11 The White House, “FACT SHEET: Announcing Over $80 Million in New Federal Investment and a Doubling of Participating Communities in the White House Smart Cities Initiative,” https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2016/09/26/fact-sheet-announcing-over-80-million-new-federal-investment-and, accessed October 20, 2016.
12 National Research Council, 2007, Innovation Inducement Prizes at the National Science Foundation, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
13 National Academy of Engineering, 1999, Concerning Federally Sponsored Inducement Prizes in Engineering and Science, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.
to guarantee quality of the “product” through an independent review process that focuses on value added or impact of the city or state investment.
In a similar vein, as part of the Smart Cities Initiative of the Obama administration, NSF announced programs to bring academic researchers and community stakeholders together to promote transformational advances in health, energy efficiency, building automation, transportation, and public safety.15
Many cities and states recognize the importance of fostering collaboration between their research universities and industries to propel economic growth and competitiveness. This type of collaboration has already happened in the ERC program. For example, the state of Georgia invested $32.5 million in the Microsystems Packaging Research
15 The White House, “FACT SHEET: Administration Announces New “Smart Cities” Initiative to Help Communities Tackle Local Challenges and Improve City Services,” https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/09/14/fact-sheet-administration-announcesnew-smart-cities-initiative-help, accessed October 20, 2016.
Center at Georgia Tech from 1994 to 2004. Direct impact from the investment was estimated at $192 million with an additional $159 million in indirect and induced impacts.16 A recent National Governors Association (NGA) report17 catalogs a number of existing programs and suggests some best practices. As the NGA report notes, a number of states (New York, Texas, California, Ohio, and Georgia) have made significant research and development (R&D) investments in recent years and have created funding models that will continue to benefit from refinement and, perhaps, appropriate replication by other states. On the other hand, in some states, barriers to funding these efforts include a poor understanding on the part of state legislatures of the multiplier effect of federally funded intellectual property development, as well as a lack of long-term commitment and stability on innovation policy.
As one example, the NGA report suggests a state will be advantaged by establishing an independent entity such as the Georgia Research Alliance (GRA) (see Box 7.3).18 The NGA report provides examples of programs in other states, some with similar structures and processes and others with different structures and processes.
Many European Union (EU) countries have adopted practices that are consistent with the NGA report. These countries support their universities to address important, modern engineering and manufacturing R&D challenges that are connected to economic prosperity. Importantly, the funding models detailed in the NGA report are for countries that, because they vary greatly in size and population, might serve as additional case studies for U.S. states. Sweden, for example, compares to either Georgia or Michigan in population; Ireland compares to Louisiana, Kentucky, or South Carolina.
Some country-level programs of EU member countries receive additional support from the EU itself. The U.S. equivalent would be state programs that receive additional collaboration and/or support from federal agencies such as NSF. The convergence of federal, state, academic, and industry intellectual capital focused on an emerging technology challenge is a powerful multiplier that has been shown to yield dramatic results. In this public-private partnership model, private dollars may match or even exceed state investment, encouraging U.S. universities to become engines of innovation that operate in close partnership with industry.
Consider the following hypothetical example of a federal–state partnership CERC that is working on the NAE Grand Challenge to “restore and improve urban infrastructure,” clearly a topic of interest to large cities and states.19 Most such cities are near sea level, as water transportation was typically a crucial factor in their original location and historical growth. That means that many cities are vulnerable to sea level rise, which is a predictable consequence of climate change.
Suppose that a major research university located in one of those cities decided to launch a new CERC to develop practical approaches to the joint issues of sea level rise and extreme weather events. 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 insurers, real estate developers, and property managers.
Even this opportunity seems so broad that the CERC being hypothesized could choose to focus on an important but limited subset of the broader problem. Possibilities include, but are hardly limited to, the following:
- Approaches to hardening existing critical buildings that cannot be replaced and/or whose functions cannot be easily moved;
- Approaches to securing, renovating, or relocating public transportation infrastructure;
- Improving advance warning systems; and
- Maintaining continuity of operations of information and telecommunications infrastructure during extreme events.
16 SRI International, 2008, National and Regional Economic Impacts of Engineering Research Centers: A Pilot Study, Summary Report, SRI Project P16906, https://www.sri.com/sites/default/files/brochures/erc_impact_summary_report_11_18_08.pdf.
17 National Governors Association, 2012, Growing State Economies: Twelve Actions, National Governors Association Chair’s Initiative, Washington, D.C.
19 Modeled on work at the Center for Urban Science and Progress at New York University, headed by Dr. Steve Koonin, formerly Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, chief technology officer of British Petroleum, and Provost of the California Institute of Technology.
NSF’s review would ensure that the appropriate talent is available and the problem being addressed is significant. It would also give participating cities and/or states confidence that the “product” will contribute to regional economic development. NSF’s investment would be leveraged by contributions from a city, a state, or a consortium of states. This would help ensure that the best talent would be attracted to the CERC. The hypothesized CERC would require leadership versed in academic, public, and private institutions. It could provide an extraordinary opportunity for scholars, students, and practitioners to interact and learn from one another.
A potential disadvantage of this type of model, when very large funding amounts are involved, is that it could invite political meddling by regional or federal government bodies.
This set of research problems and funding models is by no means comprehensive, but all of the models 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 from different disciplines and on deeply collaborative, diverse research teams. They require skillful and effective leadership to guide the centers through their formation to the realization of their goals and impact. And they will require the resources of NSF to be combined with those from other sources, including other federal agencies, states, international collaborators, and the private sector.