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Restructuring NSF's Materials Centers

Division of materials research revamps centers program to extend participation

by Susan R. Morrissey
June 21, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 25

Credit: MVSystems
MRSEC awards have led to the development of materials such as this flexible amorphous silicon solar cell made by MVSystems, an industrial partner of the center located at the Colorado School of Mines.
Credit: MVSystems
MRSEC awards have led to the development of materials such as this flexible amorphous silicon solar cell made by MVSystems, an industrial partner of the center located at the Colorado School of Mines.

Researchers are increasingly looking to tackle large-scale problems that require many players to solve. To better aid this pursuit, the National Science Foundation’s Division of Materials Research is restructuring its Materials Research Science & Engineering Centers (MRSEC) program, which currently involves 27 centers and 807 faculty participants.

The revised program—Materials Research Centers & Teams—includes a new component, Materials Interdisciplinary Research Teams (MIRT), with a funding mechanism that is intended to be less onerous for participants by having fewer requirements than MRSEC. The names of the centers are also changing and will now be called the Centers of Excellence for Materials Research & Innovation (CEMRI).

“The goal of and motivation behind this restructuring is to broaden participation in this program,” says Zakya H. Kafafi, director of NSF’s Division of Materials Research. “We wanted to open up this competition to people and institutions who have never competed before.”

The two options, CEMRI and MIRT, are intended to better meet the demands of the materials research and education community, and they come in response to a 2007 National Research Council report on MRSEC. Specifically, Kafafi tells C&EN, the report recommended the addition of a mechanism to support a single interdisciplinary team as well as a cluster of teams, which constitutes a center.

The division requested an overall budget for the two pieces of the program of about $36 million for fiscal 2011. Of that, $20 million to $24 million will go to fund an expected eight to 10 CEMRI awards, and $10 million to $12 million will go to support an estimated eight to 12 MIRT awards. CEMRI awards will be given for a six-year period, whereas MIRT grants will be awarded for an initial three-year stint.

Credit: James Marshall/NRL
Credit: James Marshall/NRL

Under the CEMRI part of the program, the division is looking to fund interdisciplinary materials research that addresses fundamental problems in science and engineering and requires a campus-based center. To be eligible, centers must include at least two, but no more than five, interdisciplinary research groups, which don’t have to be located on the same university campus.

CEMRI grantees are expected to integrate education with research and develop appropriate outreach activities. They are also expected to include the development of experimental and computational facilities that support the long-term health of the U.S.’s materials research infrastructure.

But CEMRI applicants will have a new requirement to meet. Proposals will now have to include international collaborations—something that was optional for MRSEC. These types of working arrangements are “becoming very important as science is increasingly global,” Kafafi explains.

The new MIRT part of the program will also have a research and education emphasis but will have fewer requirements. For instance, MIRT grantees must involve at least five faculty-level participants, but they do not need to have a formal international collaboration. And MIRT grantees will not need to develop research and computational infrastructure, although they are tasked with operation and maintenance of such equipment. The goal is to open the program to smaller groups of researchers, many of which eventually become part of a larger center, Kafafi notes.

In addition to increasing participation from researchers and institutions that haven’t previously competed in this type of mechanism, the restructured program also aims to increase participation by underrepresented groups.

“A goal is to broaden participation by including underrepresented majorities—namely women—and underrepresented minorities and people with disabilities,” Kafafi says. To do this, she points out, proposals will need to include a strategic plan for increasing diversity at all levels, complete with metrics to measure progress over the award period.

Preliminary proposals for both awards are being accepted by the division until Sept. 1 for CEMRI and Sept. 3 for MIRT. After peer review, a subset of applicants will be invited to submit full proposals. Final award announcements are expected next summer.

“I would like to invite the scientific community to cross new boundaries, interact with members of new and different disciplines, and connect globally via a cyberinfrastructure to address many of the 21st-century challenges and solve fundamental scientific problems,” Kafafi says. “These centers will have overarching goals to achieve and will educate the materials researchers of the future in working in new interdisciplinary and emerging areas of science.”


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