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NSF Funds New Crop of Big Research Centers

SEP 26, 2023
More than a dozen major research centers launched this summer using funds from the National Science Foundation.
Jacob Taylor headshot
Senior Editor for Science Policy, FYI American Institute of Physics
NSF HQ Cropped.jpg

The headquarters of the National Science Foundation.

(Maria Barnes / NSF)

The National Science Foundation allocated hundreds of millions of dollars in grants this summer to fund major new research centers across a range of disciplines. Many of these centers are funded through long-standing programs that periodically refresh their portfolios, such as the Science and Technology Centers, while others are brand new forays for NSF.

While the exact methods of these centers vary, they share the core objectives of bringing together multi-disciplinary teams of researchers that will study issues for an extended period. The centers also tend to include goals adjacent to their core research, such as workforce development, educational outreach, and industry networking.

Physics Frontiers Centers

NSF announced on Sept. 12 it will allocate $76 million over six years across four Physics Frontiers Centers, one of which is new and three of which are existing centers that recompeted for funding. NSF is providing $15.5 million to create a Center for Living Systems at the University of Chicago that will aim to “establish a new field of physics that focuses on how living matter can store, retrieve, and process information.” The renewal awards are $13.8 million for the Center for Quantum Information and Matter at the California Institute of Technology, $25.2 million for a JILA quantum research center at the University of Colorado Boulder, and $21.6 million for the Center for Ultracold Atoms at MIT. NSF now actively supports eight centers through the PFC program, which it created in 2001.

Science and Technology Centers

NSF announced on Sept. 7 it will allocate $120 million to four new Science and Technology Centers, each of which will receive $30 million total over five years. The New Frontiers of Sound center led by the University of Arizona will focus on topological acoustics, a field that manipulates sound waves using methods beyond traditional acoustics. The Center for Complex Particle Systems led by the University of Michigan will develop new methods of 3D printing materials. The Center for Quantitative Cell Biology led by the University of Illinois will create whole-cell models using advanced imaging and simulation tools. The Center for Braiding Indigenous Knowledges and Science led by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst will bring together Western science and Indigenous knowledge to tackle environmental science challenges. The Science and Technology Centers program was created in 1987 and now actively supports 13 centers.

Artificial Intelligence Research Institutes

NSF opened a $100 million funding opportunity in August to support up to five new National Artificial Intelligence Research Institutes, each receiving an average of $4 million per year over four or five years. The first awards, expected to be announced next year, will support up to two institutes applying AI to astronomy and will be partially funded by the Simons Foundation. NSF plans to announce additional awards in fiscal year 2025, one for an institute applying AI to materials science and at least two others for institutes focused on developing AI systems that are generalized enough to “learn and think as adeptly as humans do.” Since creating the program in 2020 NSF has funded 25 AI institutes, seven of which it launched in May with $140 million in funding.

Global Research Centers

NSF announced on Sept. 18 it has made 21 awards totaling $76 million for the inaugural cohort of Global Research Centers, which will support international research partnerships focused on developing clean energy technology and mitigating climate change. Seven of the awards are for implementing “Track 1” Global Centers, for which U.S. participants will receive up to $5 million from NSF for four to five years while their international counterparts will receive similar amounts from their respective country’s funding agency. These awards involve researchers from the UK, Canada, and Australia. The 14 remaining awards are for “Track 2” Global Centers, which are all still in the design phase. These awardees will receive up to $250,000 in “seed funding” from NSF over two years with the expectation that they will apply for Track 1 funding in the future. The Track 2 partnerships involve 26 different countries.

National Institute for Theory and Mathematics in Biology

NSF and the Simons Foundation announced on Sept. 14 that they will each contribute $25 million over five years to form a National Institute for Theory and Mathematics in Biology. The institute is led by Northwestern University in collaboration with the University of Chicago and will build on the NSF-Simons Center for Quantitative Biology established in 2018. The new institute will aim to uncover the “rules of life” that govern biological phenomena at scales ranging from the behavior of individual cells to the interactions between organisms of different species.

Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers

NSF announced in June it is allocating $162 million to nine Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers, each of which will receive $18 million over six years. Seven of the universities in this latest cohort previously operated MRSECs and two are new hosts: The University of Michigan will operate a center focused on nanoscale structures for quantum computing and self-healing polymers, and the University of Tennessee will operate a center focused on applying artificial intelligence to research in quantum materials and developing materials suited for use in nuclear fusion reactors and hypersonic defense systems. NSF holds competitions for MRSECs on a staggered six-year cycle and, with the latest awards, is supporting a total of 20 centers.

Center for the Mechanical Control of Chemistry

NSF announced on Aug. 8 it will allocate $20 million over five years to fund a new Center for the Mechanical Control of Chemistry led by Texas A&M University. The center will research how crushing chemicals can create new substances. This is a Phase 2 grant from NSF’s Centers for Chemical Innovation program, following a $2 million Phase 1 grant that NSF awarded the center in 2020 to fund its creation.

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