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Materials research decadal survey falls flat with NSF

16 May 2019

Though a sponsor of the guiding document is unhappy with the final product, the authors say they accomplished what was asked of them.

The latest decadal survey for materials research from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has underwhelmed its sponsors, according to the director of NSF’s Division of Materials Research (DMR). Speaking at the agency’s Mathematical and Physical Sciences Advisory Committee meeting on 2 May, Linda Sapochak said she had expected the report, which was released earlier this year, to offer a stronger sense of which research areas merit more attention.

Report cochairs Laura Greene of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory and Florida State University, Matthew Tirrell of the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory, and Tom Lubensky of the University of Pennsylvania defended the document in a statement to Physics Today. “Twenty-four eminent scientists and engineers, all leaders in their fields, worked together diligently over 26 months with continual guidance by the [National Academies] staff. Sixteen scientists and engineers extensively reviewed the report over more than an eight-month period,” they said. “There is a wealth of valuable and important information about the future of materials science in the report that deserves deeper consideration.”

Despite her criticism of not only the survey but also the materials research community’s level of input, Sapochak said the document is helpful in highlighting future challenges and validating DMR’s ongoing programs.

Expectations versus results

Initiated in 2016 by NSF and the Department of Energy, the materials research decadal survey is aimed at pointing the way forward for US development of alloys, polymers, biomaterials, and other scientifically and economically valuable materials. Sapochak said she particularly wanted guidance on how DMR should apportion its budget among its eight topical research programs, given that the allocation had remained largely the same for years.

She also noted that the previous two decadal surveys, completed in 1989 and 2007, had concentrated on condensed matter and materials physics. The field has changed markedly within the past decade, particularly through the development of new tools and substantially increased investment from other countries. As part of its charge, the study committee was asked to identify “areas that offer promising investment opportunities and new directions for the period 2020–2030 or have major scientific gaps,” though it was not asked to rank priorities.

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?” She said “there was not any of that” in the final report. Accordingly, she said, DMR plans to hold “special focused workshops” to further develop ideas on how it should proceed.

Greene says the committee scrupulously adhered to the charge terms that it had received from NSF and DOE. Members were reminded at each meeting of the charge and the importance of compliance, she notes. In the preface of the report, the committee emphasized the difficulty of its task, 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.”

To ensure independence, National Academies procedural rules allow virtually no contact between agency sponsors and the committee until the report is delivered. Still, some carefully controlled communication during the review might have provided the opportunity for NSF and DOE to indicate the study wasn’t going in the direction the agencies wanted, Greene says. Staff at the National Academies are looking into whether current policies could be modified for that purpose, she says.

Materials research decadal survey
Credit: National Academies/Erik Svedberg

Sapochak also said that many of the recommendations the committee did make largely mapped onto activities already under way. “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. In their statement, the three survey cochairs said that had the committee not addressed ongoing activities, “the report would have abdicated an important responsibility and possibly led to confusion about whether current activities are worthwhile.”

Acknowledging the survey committee had a “rough time” with its task, Sapochak added that she was disappointed in the participation of the materials research community in the process. She pointed particularly to poor attendance at the town hall events the committee organized at several professional society meetings. In addition to holding the town halls, the committee also received input from invited speakers during meetings and from members of the community in more informal settings, the survey cochairs told Physics Today.

Survey takeaways

Although Sapochak said it is “important to know that it’s not a perfect study,” she added that there are “a lot of good things” in the decadal survey. 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 between condensed-matter physicists and engineers.

Sapochak also highlighted the survey’s finding that the Materials Genome Initiative (MGI) and National Nanotechnology Initiative had played important roles in advancing materials research in the US. She reported that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has 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 midscale 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 midscale research infrastructure grant competitions. Research infrastructure includes materials growth and synthesis facilities, helium liquefiers and recovery systems, cryogen-free cooling systems, advanced measurement instruments, and large facilities such as the light source user facilities at national laboratories.

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 US 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 US 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.”

This article is adapted from an 8 May post on FYI, which reports on federal science policy with a focus on the physical sciences. Physics Today’s David Kramer reported on the response to Sapochak’s comments. Both FYI and Physics Today are published by the American Institute of Physics.

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