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By Mitch Ambrose
With the US facing increasingly formidable international competition in materials research, an expert panel has proposed that the National Science Foundation elevate its work in the field to the directorate level. Currently, NSF’s Division of Materials Research (DMR) is one of five divisions within its Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) Directorate.
The panel was one of the “committees of visitors” that NSF periodically forms to review divisions’ grantmaking procedures. But given the recent publication of a materials research decadal survey by the National Academies, the panel opted to also comment at length on broad strategic matters, arguing the survey demonstrates a “business as usual” approach to funding the field is untenable if the US wishes to maintain a leadership role.
Presenting their conclusions at the October meeting of NSF’s MPS advisory committee, the chair of the study panel, Cornell University professor Melissa Hines, stressed the intention is not to siphon funding from other divisions.
“I know I feel like I'm standing up here saying we need to secede from the union. And that's really not what I'm saying,” Hines said. “We're trying to figure out how to increase funding for everyone.”
Hines contrasted the trajectory of DMR’s budget, which has increased by about 2.5% per year over the past two decades, with that of the materials research budget of China’s National Natural Science Foundation, which has rapidly climbed close to parity with DMR. Citing a recent analysis in the journal Nature, she added that China now publishes far more materials science papers than the US.
Arguing the structure of MPS is a barrier to spurring a national focus on materials research, Hines remarked, “Just politically, there is no way that Congress is going to reach down in NSF through MPS and grab DMR and say ‘you get more funding.’”
“Quite frankly, we didn't see how this would work unless we are able to articulate some big change that needed to be made,” she continued. “And we thought that the idea of pulling DMR out and then having two places to fund chemistry in, two places to fund physics, two places to fund engineering, was not bad for the community either.”
However, NSF officials at the meeting were cool to the idea. The head of the MPS directorate, Anne Kinney, questioned whether the division deserves special treatment, suggesting one could make “exactly the same argument” for each of the other divisions.
She continued, “What I struggle with in terms of that recommendation [is] should we split into five? Or do we do better as a group that does profound fundamental science, where there's a lot of relations between what the different parts of this group does?”
The advisory committee later raised the subject with NSF Director France Córdova, who is nearing the end of her six-year term at the agency. Córdova said she would likely revisit how the directorate is structured if she were starting over at the agency but did not offer support for the idea of spinning off DMR.
“It's really a much broader topic than just [DMR] going off on their own. It's really about how you think about science, and the science of the future,” she continued. “It's not about taking them apart, but how do you bring them together in new ways.”
“I hope that [DMR] stays in the fold,” she later added, noting her emphasis has been on encouraging more collaboration across NSF’s divisions and directorates through the “Big Idea” initiatives the agency rolled out in 2016.
“We keep having to break down our silos,” she said.
The author is Acting Director of FYI.
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