FYI: Science Policy News

Materials Research Decadal Survey Falls Flat with NSF

MAY 08, 2019
The National Science Foundation’s sponsoring official for the latest materials research decadal survey recently said she is disappointed it did not offer specific direction on emerging research areas and that the research community’s participation was inadequate. However, she also said she agrees with its broad emphasis on the need for coordination and to bolster mid-scale research infrastructure.
Will Thomas
Spencer R. Weart Director of Research in History, Policy, and Culture
Science Policy Analyst
Materials Research Survey Cover

(Image credit – National Academies / Erik Svedberg)

The latest National Academies decadal survey for materials research has underwhelmed its sponsors, according to Linda Sapochak, the director of the National Science Foundation’s Division of Materials Research (DMR). Speaking at NSF’s Mathematical and Physical Sciences Advisory Committee meeting last week, she said she had expected it to offer a stronger sense of what research areas merit more attention.

NSF and the Department of Energy initiated the survey in 2016, and the National Academies released it at the beginning of this year. It was the third such review of the materials research field, following ones released in 1989 and 2007. As one part of its charge , the study committee was asked to identify “areas that offer promising opportunities and new directions for the period 2020–2030 or have major scientific gaps,” though it was not asked to rank priorities.

The committee stressed the difficulty of the task in the preface of the report, observing that the charge was “extremely broad” and that the survey could not cover the entire field without giving short shrift to areas that could be deemed “important and even crucial.”

Frustration stems from lack of direction on science trends

Explaining last week why she initiated the decadal survey, Sapochak said when she became DMR director in 2015, an external review committee asked how the division apportioned its budget among its eight topical research programs . She recalled replying that the allocation had largely remained the same for years and that she then decided to “really, really think strategically about the division, about how we can make the best investment for materials research.”

As an example, she said the community was “really unhappy” when the division discontinued its two international programs in 2013. But with flat budgets, she explained, she would only consider supporting such international collaborations if “it was something strategic that made sense.”

To obtain a better view of the field, she said she teamed up with Linda Horton, the head of DOE’s Materials Sciences and Engineering Division, to fund the survey effort. Other considerations driving the effort were that the previous two surveys had concentrated on condensed matter and materials physics and the fact that the field has changed markedly within the last decade, particularly through the development of new tools and substantially increased investment from other countries.

In Sapochak’s view, the final report failed to provide the guidance she was seeking. She recounted telling the committee at the outset of the survey, “Please don’t give us direct recommendations, to NSF or DOE, and other agencies. We really want your recommendations on the science trends. What do you recommend are the emerging areas?”

“There was not any of that in this report,” she remarked. Accordingly, she said DMR plans to hold “special focused workshops” to further develop ideas on how it should proceed.

Sapochak also said many of the recommendations the committee did make largely mapped onto activities already underway. “They didn’t do their homework very well on some of the things we’re already doing, but the good news to that is that it reinforces that we’re going in the right direction,” she said.

Acknowledging the survey committee had a “rough time” with its task, Sapochak suggested the materials research community shouldered much of the blame, remarking,

When we do these sort of things, we need the community to give input and they did not step up, I don’t think, as well as they should have. I’m just being honest about it.

She pointed particularly to poor attendance at the town hall events the committee organized at several professional society meetings, while noting the engineering side of the community contributed more than the science side. She also asked the advisory committee how to obtain a better response in the future and reported the National Academies had reached out to her and DOE about how it could improve its work going forward.

DMR looking to bolster coordination, midscale infrastructure

Although Sapochak said it is “important to know that it’s not a perfect study,” she also affirmed she believes there are “a lot of good things” in the decadal survey. She remarked,

I think it was really good to get all those people in the same room because I don’t think they all recognize they’re part of the same community, even though they come to the same places to get funding.

She said the division plans to act on the survey’s emphasis on fostering coordination with industry and across fields such as chemistry, physics, engineering, biology, and mathematics. She pointed to NSF’s new Quantum Leap program as one effective means of stimulating cooperation, saying, “You have the condensed matter physicists now talking to the engineers. … Usually, they like to do their own little thing and make their discovery and pass it off and then go work on something else.”

Sapochak also highlighted the survey’s finding that the Materials Genome Initiative (MGI) and National Nanotechnology Initiative had played an important role in advancing materials research in the U.S. She reported that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy had just decided to retain the interagency subcommittee responsible for the MGI, which she said had been on the “chopping block.”

She also agreed with the survey’s concern over research infrastructure at mid-scale funding levels, which she called a “huge need for the materials community.” She noted that DMR had received a large number of proposals relative to other parts of NSF in two recent mid-scale research infrastructure grant competitions.

Survey focused on strategic position of the US

In offering broad recommendations on matters such as collaboration and research infrastructure, the survey committee sought to convey its concern that materials research in the U.S. is standing on a “precipice” given the breadth of opportunities and the scale of international competition. The report recommends federal agencies establish a permanent “assessment program” that would shape the U.S. strategy for addressing the threat of increased global competition, particularly from Asia. It warns, “If the United States does not maintain its position as a world leader … it risks not being a significant player.”

One of the survey’s strongest concerns is with the status of materials research at universities, where it observes equipment and facilities are inadequate. It states, “Enormous demand on research infrastructure exists in all subfields of materials research, and over the past 10 years the ever-rising costs of acquiring and maintaining state-of-the-art research infrastructure, combined with a lack of adequate funding avenues for instrumentation, have culminated in a critical situation for all of materials science and engineering in the United States.”

As examples of the nation’s materials research infrastructure, the survey identifies materials growth and synthesis facilities, helium liquefiers and recovery systems, cryogen-free cooling systems, and advanced measurement instruments, as well as large facilities such as the light source user facilities at national laboratories. The survey broadly recommends federal agencies develop a “national strategy to ensure that university research groups and national laboratories have local access to develop, and continuing support for use of, state-of-the-art midscale instruments and laboratory infrastructure essential for the advancement of materials research.”

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