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

Chapter: HOW WELL HAS THE DESIGN OF THE STC PROGRAM WORKED?

« Previous: HAS THE STC PROGRAM ACCOMPLISHED ITS GOALS?
Suggested Citation:"HOW WELL HAS THE DESIGN OF THE STC PROGRAM WORKED?." 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.
×

3

How Well Has the Design of the STC Program Worked?

The design of the STC program was outlined in the open solicitations for proposals. This open competition mechanism does not just mean that anyone can apply but rather that it is an NSF-wide, directorate-independent competition—not limited to a particular discipline or specialty. NSF appointed a committee to evaluate the proposals. In its evaluation, this committee—known as the STC Advisory Committee—used the criteria from the 1988 solicitation (listed in Box 3-1). This chapter explores how well the design has worked relative to the overall goals of the STC program.

OBSERVATIONS AND COMMENTARY

What Was the Design of the STC Program?

The initial design of the STC Program included a number of specific elements. Among these were

  • Open competition across NSF directorates.

  • Long time scale of grants.

  • Multi-investigator research topics.

  • Mechanism for knowledge transfer.

The most distinctive aspect of the original competition was its openness. This is one of the few cases in which teams of investigators have been able to propose long-term, large-scale research projects within or across disciplinary boundaries. The openness of the solicitation process has been very successful and has resulted in far more proposals worthy of funding than could be supported in

Suggested Citation:"HOW WELL HAS THE DESIGN OF THE STC PROGRAM WORKED?." 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 STC program. It is widely believed that many of these proposals led to new research projects but we have no way of examining this issue.

BOX 3-1

Review Criteria Used to Evaluate Proposals for STCs

  • Intrinsic merit of the intellectual focus and research;

  • Research performance competence;

  • Utility or relevance of the research;

  • Appropriateness of the Center approach;

  • Appropriateness of institutional and management plans and arrangements;

  • Effect of the Center on the infrastructure of science and engineering;

  • Quality and appropriateness of the educational and training components of the Center's activities; and

  • Form, appropriateness and strength of linkages, and knowledge transfer efforts to other sectors and groups.” (NSF 1988)

Another key aspect was the importance and timeliness of the proposed research. The centers have addressed problems and opportunities that were important at the time of the competition.

The lifetime of STC funding is 11 years (9 years for the project and 2 years for phasedown). Initial awards were made on February 1 for a duration of 5 years. The cooperative agreements specified that a proposal for renewal was due on July 1 in the third year of support. If the renewal proposal was unsuccessful, the center would have years 4 and 5 of the original award to scale down its activities. If it was successful, the proposal would provide another 5 years of support beginning on the following February 1 for years 4-8. Another renewal proposal was due on July 1 of the sixth year. If it was unsuccessful, the center would scale down in years 7 and 8. If it was successful, another 5 years of funding would start on the following February 1 for years 7-11. Support would scale down in years 10 and 11 by about 20% per year.

At this stage of their development (toward the end of the initial funding period), the panel found that some topics in the original proposals remain timely and others have become mature—in fact, some STCs have evolved from their original goals toward related research. That is partly due to the fast pace of research in many areas of science and partly due to extra risks involved in especially complex research topics. Some will develop better than others.

A further key feature in the original selection criteria was the need for a center-based (multi-investigator) approach, which might or might not have been multidisciplinary. Not all STCs are multidisciplinary. The key common denominator is that the research itself is initiated by multiple investigators and needs a center structure to facilitate it.

Suggested Citation:"HOW WELL HAS THE DESIGN OF THE STC PROGRAM WORKED?." 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.
×
How Do STCs Differ from Other Centers and Other Modes of Research Support?

Other NSF centers (e.g., specialized centers, such as earthquake, ecological, and materials centers) and independent centers at universities have multiple investigators and are multidisciplinary. It is important to differentiate how the STC program differs from other NSF modes of support. An attempt has been made in Table 3-1(which has been reviewed by NSF staff). The nature of STCs varies widely, so even this table, which describes the many features of a center, does not capture all their attributes. This diversity reflects well the flexibility of the STC program to encompass varied approaches to research.

Note that STCs share with other centers the attributes of timeframe, scale, and, in some cases, multidisciplinarity. The distinguishing characteristic of STCs is the open competition that took place across NSF directorates. Such competition provides the opportunity for the proposal of a wide range of ideas that do not fit into the normal purviews and provinces of NSF directorates or the constraints of the single-investigator mechanism. It also allows an activity to move more quickly into a center mode of funding than in the case of an NSF disciplinary center, such as the Center for Theoretical Physics. And it provides a way of concentrating resources on particularly pressing problems in science or advanced technology that cannot be met with single-investigator support. The open competition across all NSF directorates evoked a particularly intense competition.

FINDINGS

The panel's key findings as to the design of the STC program are as follows:

  1. The design of the STC program has produced an effective means for identifying particularly important and timely scientific problems that require a center mode of support. It also provides a model for the creative interaction of scientists, engineers, and students from various disciplines and across academic, industry, and other institutional boundaries. And STCs expose undergraduate and graduate students to the concept of team research, and, in some cases, to multidisciplinary training.

  2. STCs are unique in that they are competed for across the entire NSF. STCs share with other types of centers the attributes of time scale and scope necessary to address particularly important problems that cannot realistically be addressed by single investigators. Team-building and coordination are universal characteristics, so excellent scientific leadership is essential. The problems addressed by STCs are both disciplinary and multidisciplinary.

  3. In our assessment, STCs are most successful when they are strongly motivated by long-term important problems and opportunities in science and technology; near-term relevance is of secondary importance. That does not mean that relevance to society is unimportant or should be ignored. Rather, the

Suggested Citation:"HOW WELL HAS THE DESIGN OF THE STC PROGRAM WORKED?." 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.
×

TABLE 3-1 Differentiating Among NSF Modes of Support

 

STC

ERC

Specialized Centers (Earthquake; Ecological; Materials)

Industry/University Coop. Engr. Research Centers

Facility

Group

PI

Competition (Open or Restricted to single directorates)

O

R

R

R

R *

R *

R *

Mission (Specific problem/technology area or Broad theme)

B

B

B

S

S

S

S

Scope (Disciplinary or Multidisciplinary)

D/M

D/M

M

D

D/M

D

D

Timeframe (Long or Short)

L

L

L

L

L

S

S

Scale (Large or Intermediate or Small Number of Persons)

L

L

L

L

L

I

S

Management (Coordinated or Not coordinated among research projects)

C

C

C

C

N

C

N

Knowledge Exchange (Linked or Not linked)

L

L

L/N

L

N

N

N

External Advisory Committee (Yes or No)

Y

Y

Y

Y

Y

N

N

K-12 Education Program (Yes or No)

Y/N

Y/N

Y/N

Y/N

N

N

N

NOTE: Keys for table entries are provided in left-hand column.

KEY:

STC= Science and Technology Center

ERC= Engineering Research Center

Coop.= Cooperative

Engr.= Engineering

PI= Individual Investigator

* = There are exceptions, but this is generally true

Suggested Citation:"HOW WELL HAS THE DESIGN OF THE STC PROGRAM WORKED?." 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.
×

balance between scientific and technological importance and relevance to society follows from the unique responsibility of NSF to ensure the long-term vitality of science and engineering in the United States.

  1. By design, STCs have long-term support. At this stage of their development, the STCs are largely at the cutting edge of research, but some centers are clearly maturing, as is consistent with the fast pace of research in especially complex research topics.

  2. CONCLUSIONS

    The design of the STC program has been successful. On the basis of the panel's review of the 25 centers now in operation, it appears that the most important criterion used by the Advisory Committee for selection of proposals was excellence of science and the appropriateness of the center approach. The STC program constitutes a valuable and complementary mode of NSF support for investigators to develop innovative centers without restriction to a particular directorate or funding restrictions within a particular directorate; thus, it allows resources to flow to the best opportunities. Because centers address complex research questions, require considerable buildup time, and often involve the rallying of a subcommunity of scientists, they need a long-term commitment if they are to be successful. Observing that some centers have already accomplished their goals before the 11-year grant period is over, the panel believes that a shorter award period might be appropriate.

Suggested Citation:"HOW WELL HAS THE DESIGN OF THE STC PROGRAM WORKED?." 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 21
Suggested Citation:"HOW WELL HAS THE DESIGN OF THE STC PROGRAM WORKED?." 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 22
Suggested Citation:"HOW WELL HAS THE DESIGN OF THE STC PROGRAM WORKED?." 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 23
Suggested Citation:"HOW WELL HAS THE DESIGN OF THE STC PROGRAM WORKED?." 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 24
Suggested Citation:"HOW WELL HAS THE DESIGN OF THE STC PROGRAM WORKED?." 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 25
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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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