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An Assessment of the National Science Foundation's Science and Technology Centers Program (1996)

Chapter: HAS THE STC PROGRAM ACCOMPLISHED ITS GOALS?

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Suggested Citation:"HAS THE STC PROGRAM ACCOMPLISHED ITS GOALS?." 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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2

Has the STC Program Accomplished Its Goals?

This section examines the goals of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Science and Technology Centers (STCs) program and explores the extent to which it has met its goals.

OBSERVATIONS AND COMMENTARY

The STCs were established in response to objectives and features set forward in requests for proposals (RFPs) issued by NSF in 1987 and 1989. These requests were influenced by President Reagan's 1987 State of the Union address and by the Packard-Bromley (White House Science Council 1986) and Zare reports (NAS 1987). The goals and features of the STCs are expressed most clearly in the 1989 solicitation, as shown in Box 2-1 , Box 2-2 , and Box 2-3 .

How Have Other Factors Beyond Those in the Original Solicitations Influenced the Expectations and Operation of the STCs?

Recently, NSF has refined the goals for the STC program as expressed in a memorandum from Neal Lane, NSF director, to Alice Rivlin, Office of Management and Budget director, dated September 30, 1994. Briefly, these refined goals are

  • Challenging and far-reaching interdisciplinary 1 research problems.

  • Knowledge exchange and transfer.

  • Education and research training.

1  

The panel equates the definition of the terms interdisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, and multidisciplinary. Throughout the remainder of the report, the panel uses its preferred term—multidisciplinary.

Suggested Citation:"HAS THE STC PROGRAM ACCOMPLISHED ITS GOALS?." 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.
×

In the original RFP, the multidisciplinary nature of research was not specified. Its inclusion in the goals submitted to OMB constitutes a substantial change, inasmuch as many current centers are not multidisciplinary. In addition, the second and third goals transmitted to OMB seem to have been raised in importance relative to the research goal.

For the purposes of this report, the panel accepts the goals transmitted to OMB as the NSF's most current position. However, the panel believes that

BOX 2-1

Over-arching Goal of STC Program as expressed in 1989 Solicitation

“The National Science Foundation (NSF) established the Science and Technology Research (STC) Centers Program to help maintain U.S. preeminence in science and technology and ensure the requisite pool of scientists with the quality and breadth of experience required to meet the changing needs of science and society—ingredients essential to successful economic competitiveness.” (NSF 1989)

  • Given that multidisciplinary research was not part of the original solicitation, it cannot be fairly used to judge the existing STC program. (As discussed elsewhere in this report, the panel also feels that this requirement is too restrictive.)

  • Similarly, recent changes among goals should not be applied retroactively. The panel believes that research and undergraduate and graduate education linked to that research should be the paramount goals of the STC program. We have evaluated the program in that light.

As with many government programs, the STC program throughout its lifetime has operated under evolving visions and themes. In addition to the modification of the goals, expectations relative to K-12 activities and programs were later imposed on the STC program. Although not a requirement, this addition was strongly influenced by the partnership of the STC program with the NSF Education and Human Resources Directorate (EHR) in which EHR provided additional funds to STCs in exchange for the incorporation of K-12 activities into STC program activities.

How Well Are the STCs Performing Relative to the Research Goal?

To assess the 25 STCs, the panel assigned each member primary responsibility for two centers and secondary responsibility for two others. By reviewing the site-visit reports, brochures, and other documents related to the centers, as well as the Abt report, the panel members were able to familiarize themselves with the accomplishments, impact, and problems of all the centers in a substantive manner. In addition, having panel members with diverse expertise allowed us to obtain views of the STCs from the scientific communities that they serve.

Suggested Citation:"HAS THE STC PROGRAM ACCOMPLISHED ITS GOALS?." 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 2-2

STC Program Objectives as Expressed in 1989 Solicitation

“The objectives of the Program are:

“ • To exploit opportunities in science and technology where the complexity of the research problems or the resources needed to solve these problems requires the advantages of scale, duration, and/or equipment and facilities that can only be provided by a campus-based research center.

“ • To involve students and research scientists and engineers from academia, nonprofit organizations, industry, and Federal laboratories in order to enhance the training and employability of professionals with an awareness of potential applications of scientific discoveries and to provide a mechanism for increasing the transfer of knowledge among sectors of society.

“ • To provide stable, long-term funding.” (NSF 1989)

The analyses indicated that most of the centers have been conducting outstanding research, although in some cases it is difficult to determine the impact of that research in the relatively short time that the STCs have been in operation.

For example, the scientists at the Center for Biological Timing were called an outstanding group of scientists by their site-visit team and have produced an impressive output of scholarly work that has appeared in the top journals in the field. The center succeeded in isolating the first circadian-clock mutant in the mouse and several new ones in plants. Reports on the center indicated that these studies realistically could be accomplished only through center support because of their complexity, their long-term nature, and the unlikelihood of their being supported through traditional investigator-initiated programs. Similarly, the Center for Research in Cognitive Science addresses one of the most important and difficult subjects in all of science and is viewed as having made substantial contributions of very high quality.

Reports on the Center on Synthesis, Growth, and Analysis of Electronic Materials characterize it as an excellent national resource for the fundamental study of the synthesis, growth, and analysis of electronic materials with strong and growing interdisciplinary interactions involving first rate faculty producing high-quality research.

Reports indicate that visitors to the Center for Photoinduced Charge Transfer were uniformly impressed with the consistently high quality of the research projects and with well-thought-out collaborations that led to similar contributions in the field. These accomplishments, according to visitors, resulted in a center that had already matured into a world-class force.

Suggested Citation:"HAS THE STC PROGRAM ACCOMPLISHED ITS GOALS?." 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.
×

The Center on Superconductivity is widely regarded as having met its primary goal of advancing the fundamental understanding of the new high-temperature superconductors and as having done much better than corresponding centers in other countries.

The panel found that most of the research activities required multi-investigator centers, although not necessarily multidisciplinary ones, for the research to be conducted to its full potential. That is because the problems addressed are too complex to be answered by a single investigator. We believe that several centers, such as the Center for Particle Astrophysics and the Center for Discrete Mathematics, are predominantly in a single discipline.

For example, the Center for Quantized Electronic Structures requires the efforts of materials scientists, physicists, and engineers coordinated in a center approach order to conduct the long-term research on materials synthesis and analysis that will lead to new types of ultrasmall devices that involve the quantum nature of electronic motion. The work conducted on quantum structures at the center is widely respected throughout the world and has drawn many visitors from other universities and industry. One might note, however, that electronic and photonic device science has almost become a field unto itself.

BOX 2-3

Features of STCs as Expressed in 1989 Solicitation

“STCs should have a unifying research focus involving any field of research supported by the Foundation. The STCs vary in size and exhibit diverse forms of organization, participation, and operation. No single type of center fits the needs of every field. Rather, the size, structure, and operation of the STC is determined by the proposed research.

“While Centers are unique in some respects, each Center must:

“ • Be based in an academic institution.

“ • Be directed by a scientific or engineering faculty member and integrated into academic programs.

“ • Have tangible resource commitments that reflect the priorities of the home institution and other institutional collaborators.

“ • Provide a variety of education and research opportunities for students and faculty (e.g., undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, industrial fellows, faculty members from other colleges and universities, including those from institutions without such facilities).

“ • Have significant intellectual exchange and substantive resource linkages among various types of institutions (e.g., academic, nonprofit organizations, Federal Government laboratories, industry, Federal, State, and local governments) to facilitate knowledge transfer.” (NSF 1989)

The Center for Clouds, Chemistry, and Climate also needed a center for its activities to understand better the influence of clouds on the earth's atmospheric chemistry. The center includes physicists, chemists, meteorologists, and

Suggested Citation:"HAS THE STC PROGRAM ACCOMPLISHED ITS GOALS?." 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.
×

oceanographers and has conceived and implemented important field expeditions and made excellent uses for data collected from a National Aeronautics and Space Administration satellite by center scientists. A planned experiment will not only use satellite data but deploy ships and aircraft. Such activities require the coordination of researchers and multi-investigator, multiplatform field experiments that are not possible without a center.

The Center for High-Pressure Research has produced notable and unique scientific and technologic results by taking advantage of stable and centralized funding to create a set of facilities that provided the tools needed for the most advanced exploration and determinations in its field.

The Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica requires collaboration by experts in various aspects of astronomical instrumentation operating in a hostile environment. The Center provides infrastructure support that would be very expensive if duplicated by each investigator, as well as the opportunity for investigators to use each other's instruments.

How Well Are STCs Performing Relative to the Goal of Education?

The STC education goal was originally focused on the undergraduate and graduate levels but was later expanded to include K-12 education. There is a wide array of educational activities in the STCs. However, the panel is concerned about the extent to which individual STCs have emphasized K-12 programs. Undergraduate and graduate education is easily coupled to the research endeavor, but that is not necessarily true of K-12 education.

The panel found that all the centers have substantial involvement with undergraduate and graduate students. It is interesting that some of the most important educational activities were not in the typical educational mode (symposia, classes, seminars, and so on) or offered at the centers, but in joint research and information exchanges that were conducted with business and industry (discussed further below).

For example, the Center for High-Pressure Research has produced eight PhDs and three MS graduates, conducted a 10-week undergraduate summer program, and attracted five minority-group students who are pursuing or planning careers in earth sciences or related fields. A unique effort is that of the Center for Particle Astrophysics, which has made an explicit attempt to change the culture of doing science. The center has initiated an in-house forum called “In Balance” to discuss sexual stereotyping, competitiveness, and combining career and family. The forum has sparked similar activities in academic departments, disciplinary societies, and other STCs.

The Center for Molecular Biotechnology has helped to establish the novel Molecular Biotechnology Department at the University of Washington. This department creates an environment and curricula for the development of multidisciplinary scientists, who, through cooperative learning, can enhance the probability of

Suggested Citation:"HAS THE STC PROGRAM ACCOMPLISHED ITS GOALS?." 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.
×

solving complex biologic problems. Visitors believe that the new department will have a significant national impact as a model for research and training.

Many centers have been innovative in K-12 education and found this part of their activities to be enjoyable. For example, the Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica has a Space Explorers program in which about 30 high-school students assist in teaching about 2,000 others.

The Center for Clouds, Chemistry, and Climate is participating in a program with the Stephen Birch Aquarium and Museum. There, teachers and research scientists prepare classroom demonstrations and experiments enabling schoolchildren to study climate change. The K-12 activities are supported by San Diego-area industry and other grants, and other NSF support is being sought. Similarly, the Center on Microbial Ecology has developed “The Unseen World,” a program that engages teachers in science education and links teachers to resources at the university. Another program, “Science in the City,” includes hands-on activities and field trips for high-school students.

The Center for Light Microscope Imaging and Biotechnology has produced a planetarium show, “Journey into the Living Cell,” and offers hands-on experiences in the STC teaching laboratory for high-school students, many of whom are members of minority groups. The Center for Engineering Plants for Resistance Against Pathogens developed a computer game called “Germ Wars” and had high-school teachers and students as interns.

Centers also reach out to the general public. For example, the Center for High Pressure Research is developing exhibits and interactive teaching materials with the Long Island Natural Sciences Museum.

How Well Are STCs Performing Relative to the Goal of Knowledge Transfer and Exchange?

A desirable aspect of the STCs is that they are involved in a two-way exchange of knowledge with other researchers, graduate students, businesses, and industry. There is considerable evidence that the STCs as a whole have done an excellent job of disseminating their results whether they are related to basic science, as in the particle-astrophysics center, or more applied fields.

For example, the Southern California Earthquake Center—a collaborative effort of six universities, the US Geological Survey, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and several state agencies —analyzes many kinds and large volumes of seismic data and theories of earthquakes. It provides its outreach about seismic hazards through publications, and newsletters to regional authorities, industries, and planners.

The Center for Photoinduced Charge Transfer is exploring new modes of knowledge transfer. The center has generated an agreement among the three partners (University of Rochester, Eastman Kodak Company, and Xerox Corporation) that encourages free sharing of ideas and experiments. All research projects are directed jointly by university and industry scientists. Management of Xerox

Suggested Citation:"HAS THE STC PROGRAM ACCOMPLISHED ITS GOALS?." 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.
×

and Kodak have noted a substantial increase in research from their scientists and have seen results translated into products.

The Center for Light Microscope Imaging and Biotechnology interacts productively with established manufacturers of microscopes, and its accomplishments have included establishment of a new company focused on the development of dyes and labeling agents, which has had a major impact on the field.

Similarly, the Center for Ultrafast Optical Science has been exceptionally successful in knowledge transfer. The center has spun off two companies and has had substantial impact on many others. Developments have made their way into commercial products in several larger, more-established companies.

Such active collaborations, especially via joint projects among academic and industry scientists and engineers, are an effective means of increasing face-to-face interactions for exchanging information and transferring knowledge—above that which is achieved solely through scientific publications and conferences. Another benefit of collaborative arrangements is that they seem to improve the ability of graduate students to interact with industrial scientists and engineers. Through those arrangements, students have been able to learn about opportunities and show their abilities to potential employers. The arrangements have also been able to break down the barriers between university and industry and show how there can be a flow of science and personnel between university and industry.

For example, at the Center for High Pressure Research, two companies support center scientists and eight companies have assigned scientists to work at the center's specialized facilities. Visitors have been favorably impressed by university-industry collaboration in a series of systematic tests of the mechanical properties of tungsten carbide.

Relevant portions of the computer industry have provided important and consistent support for the Center for Research on Parallel Computation by making available specialized equipment and involvement of their staff.

The Center for Advanced Cement-Based Materials has an industrial-affiliates program that links the center to 17 industry members who have their own research and development operations; in addition, through a small-business partnership program, the center offers technology-transfer seminars, with approximately 50 persons in attendance from industries that do not have their own research units.

Spinoff companies are an important consequence of knowledge transfer and exchange activities, and they go beyond patents and publications. In some cases, STCs have led to the creation of small businesses to market the technologies developed at the STCs. For example, at the Center for Computation and Visualization of Geometric Structures, a scientist started a company to commercialize a programming system for computer animation.

Suggested Citation:"HAS THE STC PROGRAM ACCOMPLISHED ITS GOALS?." 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.
×
Is One Type of STC More Successful Than Another?

STCs differ in their degree of multidisciplinarity, their science-technology emphasis, their riskiness, and their facilities. The panel's analysis of the individual centers does not indicate that one type of center is more successful than another in attaining program goals. As will be discussed in and was discussed in the NAPA report (1995), other factors, in particular center leadership and management, seem to be more important than specific research-center characteristics in making an STC successful.

What Problems Has the STC Program Faced in Reaching Its Goals?

The STC program is not free of problems or shortcomings in meeting its goals. Examination of site-visit reports reveals some general problems and issues. For example, in a rapidly evolving field, it is difficult even for a technically successful center to shift its focus in response to the natural evolution of the field (e.g., from a basic to a more applied orientation or from one scientific emphasis to another). Moreover, any given center might not be well constituted to make such large changes and remain successful. Similarly, a successful center whose original importance and timeliness are derived from long-term research needs of a particular industry, still can find that its programs and the needs of industry drift apart over the course of the lifetime of the center. At least one center, which is universally deemed a technical success, is in the situation that the billion-dollar industry toward whose needs its work is directed exists essentially only outside the United States except for relatively small entrepreneurial firms in niche markets. Clearly, science and technology constitute but one component in economic competitiveness.

Thus, technical success and success in meeting the overarching program goals outlined in Box 2-1are not necessarily the same. NSF and the US scientific and engineering communities are refining their approach to fostering basic research in support of broad societal goals. The panel believes that further experimentation is called for, but the STC program has been a successful step.

As guidance in designing future steps, the panel offers two observations. First, different parts of science and technology evolve at different rates. No single timeframe can be ideal, but it is certainly the responsibility of NSF to take the long-term, fundamental, and generic point of view. Second, in the modern context, the contributions of science to technology most commonly appear first at the margins, either as one part of a large set of inputs to the technology base of an existing large industry or as the seeds of radical new industries, often expressed through small startup companies. Understanding these dynamics might help in designing future STCs more optimally and astutely.

Suggested Citation:"HAS THE STC PROGRAM ACCOMPLISHED ITS GOALS?." 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.
×

FINDINGS

The key observations of the panel as to the level of attainment of the STC program goals by individual STCs are as follows:

  1. Taken together, the successes in research, knowledge and technology transfer, and education suggest that collectively the centers have achieved the STC program goals.

  2. The STC program has undergone shifts of vision and goals. Most recently, that has included a seeming requirement for multidisciplinary research. The panel finds the latter too restrictive. The STC program provides a mechanism to address a wide variety of important problems that might not be multidisciplinary but cannot otherwise be addressed within the NSF structure.

  3. Most STCs are producing high-quality world-class research.

  4. Most research conducted at STCs would not have been possible without a center structure and presence.

  5. In many cases, centers have served as intellectual magnets for the scientists involved.

  6. STC programs adequately include undergraduate and graduate students in their activities. Some of them expose students to team research, broader ideas and activities, and broader groups of researchers than typical in traditional department programs.

  7. Some centers have interesting, innovative, and vigorous K-12 educational activities.

  8. Most centers serve efficiently as two-way conduits between universities and their industrial partners. In general, they perform that function better than traditional departments do.

  9. The research characteristics of successful centers vary widely; no single factor determines success.

CONCLUSIONS

Has the STC program attained its goals? The panel believes that the answer is yes. Most of the individual STCs have been successful. They have produced research of high scientific quality with coherent intellectual themes that could be addressed only through center-based research. They have integrated education and training into their activities and have conducted knowledge-transfer and exchange activities with relevant research communities, business and industry, and the public.

Suggested Citation:"HAS THE STC PROGRAM ACCOMPLISHED ITS GOALS?." 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 12
Suggested Citation:"HAS THE STC PROGRAM ACCOMPLISHED ITS GOALS?." 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 13
Suggested Citation:"HAS THE STC PROGRAM ACCOMPLISHED ITS GOALS?." 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 14
Suggested Citation:"HAS THE STC PROGRAM ACCOMPLISHED ITS GOALS?." 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 15
Suggested Citation:"HAS THE STC PROGRAM ACCOMPLISHED ITS GOALS?." 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 16
Suggested Citation:"HAS THE STC PROGRAM ACCOMPLISHED ITS GOALS?." 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 17
Suggested Citation:"HAS THE STC PROGRAM ACCOMPLISHED ITS GOALS?." 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 18
Suggested Citation:"HAS THE STC PROGRAM ACCOMPLISHED ITS GOALS?." 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 19
Suggested Citation:"HAS THE STC PROGRAM ACCOMPLISHED ITS GOALS?." 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 20
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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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