Media Advisory: New Report Lays Out Strategic Direction for NSF’s Engineering Research Centers

WASHINGTON – The National Science Foundation (NSF) should re-invigorate its Engineering Research Center (ERC) program – a partnership between academia, industry, and government to produce transformational engineered systems – by addressing grand-challenge-like problems, whose solutions would greatly benefit society, says a new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

NSF should provide greater investment to attract the most talented faculty and students, and reduce administrative burdens on the centers.  Moreover, the centers should embrace best practices of team research and value creation that are currently used by top U.S. corporations and organizations such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).  To emphasize the ambition and the bold new direction of these center-scale investments led by engineering, they should be given a new name; possibly convergent engineering research centers (CERCs), the report says.

ERCs provide an avenue for industry to work with faculty and students on solving challenges, help develop new knowledge needed for advances in technology, and prepare undergraduate and graduate engineering students for the workforce.  Since their inception in 1985, ERCs, which are based at universities, have produced more than 12,000 engineering graduates.  The report provides a strategic new direction for the program that can help ensure that ERCs continue to be a source of innovation, economic development, and educational excellence.

The report’s recommendations include:

Leadership: In order to give CERCs the best opportunity to achieve their goal of deep research collaboration toward solving grand-challenge-like problems, NSF should ensure that CERC leaders have demonstrated the ability to run large, complex programs and are skilled in the application of best practices in team research and value creation.

Engineering education: Given the constantly evolving state of engineering education, the centers should offer students opportunities to exercise design and entrepreneurship skills obtained through their coursework by providing experiences such as internships, exposure to industrial and public sector expertise through collaborations, workshops, seminars, personnel exchanges, and opportunities to discuss the ethical dimensions of their work.

Overall goals and metrics: The metrics currently used to evaluate centers tend to focus on numbers of students graduated, papers published, and patents awarded.  These output measures do not assess the most important impacts of centers.  NSF should develop metrics that track the outcomes of center activities – not just the outputs.  Examples include placement of graduated students in influential positions, or evidence that the intellectual value developed in the center is widely used.

The report also says that the host institution should collaborate with the CERC to expand diversity and educational outreach to K-12 schools to enable the CERC to focus on its core research mission. 

DETAILS: A New Vision for Center-Based Engineering Research is available for immediate release.  Media inquiries should be directed to the National Academies' Office of News and Public Information; tel. 202-334-2138 or e-mail news@nas.edu