Many Questions, Few Answers On New NSF Science Centers

WASHINGTON—A National Science Foundation proposal to spend $50 million next year on up to 20 science and technology centers, touted by Director Erich Bloch as a partial solution to the country's economic problems, is actually an untested idea that has raised numerous questions among the scientific community. NSF is supporting three separate efforts, one in-house, to help it decide how to create, operate and evaluate such basic research facilities. Congress has already heard Xestimony from

By | March 23, 1987

WASHINGTON—A National Science Foundation proposal to spend $50 million next year on up to 20 science and technology centers, touted by Director Erich Bloch as a partial solution to the country's economic problems, is actually an untested idea that has raised numerous questions among the scientific community.

NSF is supporting three separate efforts, one in-house, to help it decide how to create, operate and evaluate such basic research facilities. Congress has already heard Xestimony from representatives of several major scientific organizations on the need to move slowly and carefully.

Chief among their concerns are:

  • Which fields are most likely to profit from such multidisciplinary collaboration? Should there be a balance between the number of centers pursuing more applied work and those doing more basic research? Are centers inappropriate for some disciplines?
  • Will the centers alter the traditional relationship between graduate student and professor and change the way in which young scientists are trained and move ahead in their careers?
  • How will the centers be evaluated? Will there be a provision to limit the number of years of support to make the best use of scarce resources?
  • How critical is industrial support? Will it steer researchers toward short-term gains?
  • Will the administrative responsibilities of operating a center be too great a burden for all but the largest research universities?
  • Will the level of support going to the centers make it difficult for nonaffiliated scientists to obtain funding?

Economic Gains

Despite this uncertainty, NSF officials appear committed to the idea that such centers can follow the approach taken to create the initial group of six Engineering Research Centers in 1985 and become an important element in the nation's quest to regain its edge in world markets. (See Face to Face, with NSF'S David Kingsbury.)

"I expect the centers to focus on areas that are important to the U.S. economy," said Richard Nicholson, assistant director for Mathematical and Physical Sciences and coordinator of the Foundation's five-year plan for the centers. "It's not un-American to worry about the contribution of science to improving the country's economic indicators.

"If Erich Bloch had asked for more money to do fundamental research on quarks, we'd be looking at a smaller budget instead of the 18 percent increase that has been proposed by this administration. We're not promising to eliminate the federal deficit, but training and the production of knowledge are keys to improving our economic competitiveness, and that's what NSF can offer."

Federal support for large groups of researchers from various disciplines is not a new concept. Its roots can be traced back 100 years to the first State Agricultural Experiment Stations, and the extent of support for research groups has ebbed and flowed throughout NSF's 37-year history. But the new initiative has caused some researchers to worry that NSF may be slighting the needs of individual investigators, tying the fortunes of American science too closely to success in the market place and gambling scarce resources on an unknown yet costly approach to supporting science.

"Center funding should be viewed as an experiment, with the potential for high payoffs," J.L. Goldstein, vice president for research at Lehigh University, told a House science and technology subcommittee last month. "The U.S. does not have a long record of successes with center-type funding for cross-disciplinary research involving major industrial participation."

"I do not think we can expect all the centers to succeed … [But] we do not yet have enough experimental data to predict which ones will fail, or why."

Search for Answers

Part of the uncertainty stems from the lack of detail in the proposal put forth by Bloch and cited by President Reagan in his State of the Union address. Bloch has said that the $50 million in the fiscal year 1988 budget for the Foundation could support 15 to 20 university-based, multidisciplinary centers, "each with strong industry involvement, working on problems that are scientifically important and relevant to industrial technology." The plan, Bloch told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee during testimony last month, will be based "on the proven concept of the engineering research centers."

But that description leaves a lot of unanswered questions. In fact, on February 11 Bloch asked the National Academy of Sciences to assemble a panel to recommend how to establish and administer these centers—and to report back by June 1 so that this fall NSF could send out a program announcement.

Two other groups are already tackling the problem. The first is a committee of the National Science Board, NSF's policy-making body, which hopes to complete in May a yearlong study of the proper balance between center-funded research and individual awards. The second, on various methods of research support, is also being done by NAS as part of its annual effort to inform NSF and the White House science adviser of current research issues. Its report is expected in the fall.

"People are walking up to this problem expecting it to be simple," said Don Shapero, a physicist with the Academy who is project director of the second study, which will be part of the Academy's 1987 research briefings. "But it's horrendously complicated. Any nice, global generalization that you make can be turned on its head. You have to try to be specific."

NSF's latest request to the National Academy of Sciences parallels a previous one in 1984, to the National Academy of Engineering, to flesh out the concept of engineering research centers proposed by then White House science adviser George Keyworth. Bloch, at the time IBM vice president for technical personnel development, was a member of the National Academy of Engineering panel that wrote the report.

"He obviously thought it was the right way to go," explained Nicholson, "and he hopes that what worked for NAE also will work for NAS." The Science Board's committee will cover broader questions of how research is funded, Nicholson said, although it may offer advice on the types of research and organizational structures most appropriate for such centers.

A Different Approach

The concept of the centers is a response to some of the same problems that confronted engineering research in the early 1980s, according to Nicholson. "Science is going in the direction of collaboration," he said. "And the traditional approach, with a principal investigator and a small team, doesn't always work. It's still a good way to do science, but we're just saying that another mode is desirable in certain areas.

"This approach represents a move toward recognizing a broader spectrum of modes of support," he said. "It may be a microcosm of the Foundation's future."

Industry has an important role to play in this project, Nicholson added, but that doesn't mean it will be allowed to set the research agenda. "Past studies have estimated that about 8 percent to 10 percent of NSF funding goes to applied research. I don't see that changing once the centers are up and running," he said. But he predicted that the initial awards will be won by proposals containing industrial support, in areas where the payoffs are obvious.

"You're not likely to see quantum physics in the first round," he said. "I expect the first centers will tend to be in areas that the President mentioned in his State of the Union address [robotics for automated manufacturing and microelectronics, new materials processing and biotechnology] and I would expect 90 percent of them to have industry participation."

The first six Engineering Research Centers are being evaluated now, in their third year, to decide which should receive additional support and which should be phased out at the end of their five-year grant. Nicholson, who favors awarding sufficient funds to a relatively small number of centers to improve their chances of long-term success, said he expected the new science and technology centers to undergo a similar review process.

Mervis is on the staff of The Scientist.

3 Panels Study Centers' Role

WASHINGTON—Each of the three panels exploring the role of multidisciplinary centers in the support of research are working hard to complete their reports before NSF moves ahead with its plans for next year.

The panel furthest along in its investigation is a committee of the 24-member National Science Board, which sets policy for the Foundation. The chairman of the seven-member panel is Charles Hess, dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the University of California at Davis. The group, convened last June, has held a series of hearings and plans additional sessions before completing its report in May. For more information, contact Bruce Umminger at (202) 357.7905.

The National Academy of Sciences is involved in two studies. The first panel, formed in response to a request from NSF Director Erich Bloch, will focus specifically on the creation and operation of the new centers. Its chairman is chemist Richard Zare of Stanford University. Its ten members are scheduled to meet for the first time March 28 in an effort to meet a June 1 deadline. For more information, contact Norman Metzger at (202) 334-2168.

The third study, being conducted by the National Academies of Science and Engineering under their Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy, is part of the annual research briefings prepared for NSF and the White House science adviser. The 14-member panel expects to hold its first meeting within the next few weeks and complete its report sometime this fall. Its co-chairmen are Hans Frauenfelder, professor of physics at the University of Illinois, and Joshua. Lederberg, president of The Rockefeller University. For more information, contact Don Shapero at (202) 334-3520.

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