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Suggested Citation:"INTRODUCTION." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council. 1996. An Assessment of the National Science Foundation's Science and Technology Centers Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5401.
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1

Introduction

The National Science Foundation (NSF) Science and Technology Centers (STC) program was established in 1987 to “fund important basic research and education activities and to encourage technology transfer and innovative approaches to interdisciplinary problems” (NSF 1992). Two competitions, in federal fiscal years 1989 and 1991, led to the establishment of 25 STCs. The centers span a wide range of science and engineering fields and vary substantially in how they have contributed to the goals of the STC program.

The long-term, stable funding that is a hallmark of the STC mode of research support should in principle encourage greater risk-taking and long-term thinking while providing flexibility in setting research directions, initiating projects and creating facilities, and engendering innovative educational ideas. The existence of stable clusters of expertise should also enable the nurturing of technology-transfer pathways from many of the centers. At this point in the evolution of the centers, NSF determined that it was appropriate and practical to evaluate how well the STC mode of support has been operating and to recommend adjustments.

CHARGE TO PANEL

As part of this effort, NSF requested that the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP) of the NAS, the NAE, and the IOM form a panel to evaluate the accomplishments of the NSF STC program (not individual centers) against its goals in research, education, and knowledge transfer. This report is the result of the work of the panel charged with that effort. In a separate effort, NSF also contracted with Abt Associates to gather data about the STC program.

Suggested Citation:"INTRODUCTION." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council. 1996. An Assessment of the National Science Foundation's Science and Technology Centers Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5401.
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NSF charged the COSEPUP panel to

  • Review and interpret the data gathered by the outside contractor.

  • Reach conclusions regarding the progress of the STC program toward its goals.

  • Make recommendations concerning NSF's future use of the STC mode of support.

COSEPUP then provided additional guidance to this panel regarding each element of the charge.

With respect to the first charge, the panel not only could consider the data from the contractor, but could consider any information from any other source within the budgetary and time constraints of the study. The panel could also comment on the strengths and limits of the Abt data.

For the second charge, the panel could comment on the STC program 's goals, especially as seen in today's emerging changes in the R&D landscape (academic, industrial, and government). The panel could also comment on the appropriateness of the STC mechanism for achieving each of those program goals; this could necessitate comparing the mechanism's strengths and weaknesses with those of the individual investigator and other modes of funding (although a thorough comparison was not intended). And the panel could comment generally on the balance of criteria used in making STC awards (such as scientific merit, relation to national and societal needs, geographic distribution, demographic considerations, and distribution between large and small universities).

As to the third charge, the panel could consider recommendations about the STC program balance—mix of topics, mix of basic versus applied research, interdisciplinary nature of the centers, extent of industry orientation, degree of educational emphasis, and so on —and about management of the STC program without focusing on particular centers (for example, how does NSF structure its oversight?). It could also suggest changes in the mechanism and criteria by which STC proposals are evaluated by NSF, the duration of STC awards, and the mechanism for continuing STC evaluation. Finally, if the panel felt in general that increased or decreased emphasis should be put on the STC program, it could say so; but specific recommendations for program rebalancing could be justified only by a cost-benefit analysis across NSF's entire R&D portfolio.

SOURCES OF INFORMATION

In responding to its charge, the panel was able to use information and guidance from several reports and background documents. These items included the following:

  • Science and Technology Centers: Principles and Guidelines (NAS 1987)

This report (referred to as the Zare report) by the National Academy of Sciences was written by a committee chaired by Richard Zare. The study was com-

Suggested Citation:"INTRODUCTION." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council. 1996. An Assessment of the National Science Foundation's Science and Technology Centers Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5401.
×

missioned by NSF as a result of President Reagan's 1987 State of the Union message, in which he called for several initiatives to enhance the nation's economic competitiveness, including the establishment of STCs by federal research agencies. The Zare committee examined the role of NSF in the president's program, the relationship between STCs and other modes of NSF support, essential and desirable features of STCs, mechanisms and criteria for soliciting and selecting proposals to encourage the most-promising ideas, principles and methods of governance (including relationship of STCs to their parent universities, NSF, and their scientific constituencies) and concerns raised within the scientific community by the proposed expansion of the center mode of research. The report provides guidance as to the goals, features, and solicitation and selection criteria for the program, as well as NSF's management of the program and a discussion of the risks of the program.

  • NSF Science and Technology Research Centers: Program Solicitations (NSF 1988, 1989)

The solicitations describe the features of the STCs, what institutions could submit proposals, requirements for a center director, and selection criteria.

  • Assessment of the National Science Foundation's Engineering Research Centers Program (National Academy of Engineering 1989)

This report was prepared for NSF to evaluate the mission of the engineering research center (ERC) program. NSF staff drew on existing ERC documents and expertise to develop the proposal solicitation, the review process, the cooperative agreement, etc. for the STC program.

The NAE report concluded that the ERC program was at least as important to engineering schools and industries as when it had first been proposed some 5 years earlier but expressed concern about the adequacy of the ERC program's funding and some aspects of its management.

  • University-Industry Research Centers (Wesley Cohen, Richard Florida, and W. Richard Goe, Carnegie-Mellon University 1994)

Centers, specialized institutes, and laboratories at academic institutions are not a new idea, and they are widespread. NSF alone has 11 center programs, and many universities have a profusion of centers. For example, this Carnegie-Mellon University report focuses on university-industry research centers (UIRCs) that have been funded by the federal and state government. The national study examined the characteristics and activities of UIRCs, their role in technologic innovation and technology transfer, and the effect of industrial funding on the academic research mission.

  • Alternative Models of Research Performance (Irwin Feller for U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment 1992).

This study evaluates the effects of alternative models of federal support for

Suggested Citation:"INTRODUCTION." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council. 1996. An Assessment of the National Science Foundation's Science and Technology Centers Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5401.
×

academic research and of the organization of academic research on research productivity. It evaluates questions related to the effects of teamwork and block-grant funding on creativity, including relative performance (e.g., research productivity and relevance) of the investigator-initiated model and industrial modes of research support.

  • National Science Foundation's Science and Technology Centers: Building an Interdisciplinary Research Program (National Academy of Public Administration 1995)

This study—requested by the Senate Subcommittee on Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Administration, and Independent Agencies—reviewed the management of the STC program. In conducting its study, NAPA selected five STCs, which were then reviewed by an advisory panel. The study focused on the degree to which the centers exhibited interdisciplinary collaboration, a university base, knowledge transfer to industry, and educational outreach; the value of the center concept of management; the management approaches taken by each center, and NSF's approach to management of the STC program. The study found that STCs are valuable contributions to NSF's research portfolio and to national research goals and are managed in an appropriate manner; that the five STCs are university-based, interdisciplinary, basic-research efforts and good examples for encouraging synergism. It recommended continued funding of the program, continuance of the matrix method of managing the program via the Office of Science and Technology Infrastructure and the responsible directorates, and formation by the National Science Board of a subcommittee to act as a monitoring body and to advise NSF in establishing processes and criteria for management of the program.

  • STC Visiting Committee Site-Visit Reports

Per NSF requirements, each center was visited several times by an NSF visiting committee of academic and industrial researchers who evaluated its scientific quality and administrative management. These visits included annual site visits during years 1-3 and in-depth reviews in years 3 and 6. Excerpts from these reports (with identifying information removed) are provided in Appendix D.

  • Presentation by STC Directors

At its first meeting, the panel heard from several directors of STCs. The directors described the attributes of STCs and the strengths and challenges of the program as a whole and their individual centers.

  • An Evaluation of the NSF Science and Technology Center Program (Abt 1996)

This volume, prepared in parallel with the present report, provides a historical context for the STC program, analysis (bibliometry, patents, etc.), and responses to questionnaires sent to STC directors, university officials, researchers, and graduate students. The key findings from this report are shown in Box 1-1.The panel, however, has some concerns about the method of analysis discussed in the report; these concerns are discussed in Appendix A and the preface. For these reasons, only selected data from this report have been used.

Suggested Citation:"INTRODUCTION." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council. 1996. An Assessment of the National Science Foundation's Science and Technology Centers Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5401.
×

BOX 1-1

Review of Abt Report Findings on STC Program (Abt 1996)

Principal Research Goals, Achievements and Impacts

  1. The science and technology centers are an excellent demonstration of the old axiom that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

  2. The individual centers have produced significant research achievements in fundamental knowledge and the development of research tools, and have identified a range of downstream impacts of this work.

  3. The centers collectively have established a meaning for the Science and Technology concept.

  4. A wide variety of approaches to the organization of research and ancillary activities has emerged.

  5. The center mechanism, as implemented through the STCs, is seen by survey respondents as enhancing responsiveness, interdisciplinary, and unique approaches to research.

Bibliometric Analysis of Research Performance

  1. STC scientists' journal publications were cited 1.69 times as often as the average U.S. academic paper published in SCI-indexed journals.

  2. STC papers tend to be published in journals oriented more toward basic than applied research. STC papers in Mathematics and in Chemistry have unusually high representation of industrial organizations in their authorship.

Educational Goals, Achievements and Impacts

  1. The individual centers have developed a broad range of educational component and are achieving the objectives established under this program.

  2. The STCs have achieved considerable support for their educational programs.

  3. According to PIs, the Center context is an especially effective one from which to develop and operate such [educational] initiatives.

  4. While all types of educational programs are supported, the most prevalent involve programs for undergraduate students, and outreach programs for underrepresented minorities at the undergraduate level. Precollege educational programs for students, and teacher enhancement programs were the next most frequently emphasized.

  5. Support to K-12 teachers, and university and K-12 students were most frequently cited by PIs as their key educational achievements. In many cases, women and underrepresented minority group students were significant beneficiaries of these programs.

Suggested Citation:"INTRODUCTION." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council. 1996. An Assessment of the National Science Foundation's Science and Technology Centers Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5401.
×
  1. Educational impacts of these STCs, described by their PIs, include influencing their institution's educational programs, upgrading of science and mathematics in the K-12 sphere, and a series of longer-term improvements in university level science education.

  2. There were examples of some impacts of the STCs upon university policies and culture.

Training Support and Job Performance of Graduates of the STCs

  1. Almost two-thirds of STC graduates reported having their studies partially or wholly funded by STC-administered research assistantships.

  2. STC graduates report being well prepared for their subsequent careers —whether they be in academia, industry or federal laboratory.

  3. Certain aspects of the graduates' training can be linked to specific dimensions of job performance. Many graduates continue to participate in cross-disciplinary or industry oriented research in their employment.

Knowledge Transfer Goals, Achievements and Impacts

  1. Knowledge transfer activities are seen by the Centers as stimulants to the developments, use, and dissemination of new center research.

  2. Most centers focus primarily on traditional academic mechanisms of knowledge transfer.

  3. At this stage, centers can demonstrate impressive achievements but have far fewer measurable downstream impacts.

  4. Centers have taken measures to be responsive to the needs of the external community, and institutional changes have been made to accommodate knowledge transfer activities.

  5. On average, industrial partners consider their affiliations with the STCs to be immensely beneficial.

  6. Most industry partners also find many aspects of the center mechanism relevant to their needs.

Patents

  1. STC patents have a relatively short technology cycle time (median age of the patents they cite).

  2. STC patents are relatively heavily linked to science.

  3. STC patents are linked to highly cited earlier patents.

  4. A number of STC patents are assigned to private companies.

  5. STC research papers are consistently cited by the universe of U.S. patents at a rate 2-4 times higher than the average academic paper.

Program Integration

  1. There are synergies among the three major program thrusts of the centers.

Suggested Citation:"INTRODUCTION." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council. 1996. An Assessment of the National Science Foundation's Science and Technology Centers Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5401.
×
  1. There are specific synergies among the scientific activities of the centers.

  2. There are synergies found in working with industry, other universities, and other Federal or foreign laboratories.

  3. Centers are achieving fruitful relationships among the faculty, staff, and students, and outside scientists and educators, as various research, educational, and knowledge transfer activities are developed and implemented.

Management Issues

  1. There was widespread support among the PIs, advisory board chairs, and deans for the use of a center mechanism as a funding device for the support of fundamental research in the university.

  2. A number of PIs were very positive in their assessments of the technical support they received through their directorate's technical staff.

  3. Some PIs believe that NSF has backed off from the STC program, giving it lower status and support in the agency. In particular, the Foundation is seen by some as having given ownership of the program to the directorates and divisions in the face of some vocal critics of the program.

  4. There is a fairly widespread perceptions among PIs that there are problems with how the STC program is administered; that there is not adequate coordination between OSTI and the NSF directorates with which the centers are affiliated.

  5. OSTI lost an important program (and possibly policy) mechanism through the cancellation of the STC Advisory Board.

  6. OSTI and the directorates fail to adequately coordinate the STC site review process.

  7. There are problems with the volume and frequency of OSTI data requirements and other requests for information; related to this, there were problems with use of these data even when considerable effort have been put into improving the operating data base.

  8. Selection of the review teams may be excluding some of the most qualified reviewers.

REPORT OVERVIEW

The present panel's report focuses on three key questions in response to its charge:

Suggested Citation:"INTRODUCTION." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council. 1996. An Assessment of the National Science Foundation's Science and Technology Centers Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5401.
×
  • Has the STC program accomplished its goals?

  • How well has the STC program been managed and evaluated?

  • How well has the design of the STC program worked?

The findings in response to those questions are provided in Chapter 2, Chapter 3, and Chapter 4, respectively. The panel used the findings to develop its recommendations, as shown in Chapter 5.

In Appendix A , the panel provides its analysis of the Abt report and comments on the separate contractor/Academy panel approach as a model for future NSF program evaluations. Appendix B lists the STCs. Appendix C provides biographic information on the panel members and staff. Appendix D includes excerpts from the visiting committee reports on the STCs. These reports were a major basis of the panel's recommendations.

Suggested Citation:"INTRODUCTION." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council. 1996. An Assessment of the National Science Foundation's Science and Technology Centers Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5401.
×
Page 4
Suggested Citation:"INTRODUCTION." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council. 1996. An Assessment of the National Science Foundation's Science and Technology Centers Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5401.
×
Page 5
Suggested Citation:"INTRODUCTION." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council. 1996. An Assessment of the National Science Foundation's Science and Technology Centers Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5401.
×
Page 6
Suggested Citation:"INTRODUCTION." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council. 1996. An Assessment of the National Science Foundation's Science and Technology Centers Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5401.
×
Page 7
Suggested Citation:"INTRODUCTION." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council. 1996. An Assessment of the National Science Foundation's Science and Technology Centers Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5401.
×
Page 8
Suggested Citation:"INTRODUCTION." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council. 1996. An Assessment of the National Science Foundation's Science and Technology Centers Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5401.
×
Page 9
Suggested Citation:"INTRODUCTION." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council. 1996. An Assessment of the National Science Foundation's Science and Technology Centers Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5401.
×
Page 10
Suggested Citation:"INTRODUCTION." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council. 1996. An Assessment of the National Science Foundation's Science and Technology Centers Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5401.
×
Page 11
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The National Science Foundation requested that the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy of the NAS, the NAE, and the IOM form a panel to evaluate the accomplishments of the NSF Science and Technology Centers program (not individual centers) against its goals in research, education, and knowledge transfer. This report is the result of the work of the panel charged with that effort, and provides recommendations for moving forward.

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