Over the past four decades, methods for creating new materials and examining their detailed nature have become more subtle, sensitive, and precise. Scanning transmission electron microscopes can now identify the locations of individual atoms in a silicon wafer, focused-ion beams can create features with dimensions less than 10 nanometers (nm), and secondary ion mass spectrometers can simultaneously measure chemical concentrations and spatial locations, providing better than 35 nm resolution in one configuration and sub-parts-per-million (ppm) detection limits for high-resolution depth profiling of semiconductor devices in another. In no small way, the advent of these capabilities brought about the enthusiasm and excitement of nanoscience and nanotechnology. However, these developments come at a price—literally: today’s sophisticated tools for materials research have become so expensive and complex that individual investigators often cannot own or adequately operate or maintain them.
Once dominated by tabletop instruments, materials research has blossomed into an endeavor whose threshold for individual investment has risen substantially over the past decades. Instruments critical to materials research are becoming so expensive that resources must be pooled to manage them in small to midsize, multiuser facilities. By centralizing resources (in terms of equipment, staff, and expertise), midsize facilities provide much-needed centers of instrumentation, innovation, and creativity for research, education, and training. Midsize facilities often offer commercial collaborators access to advanced research and development environments; the resulting partnerships can invigorate local industry and
even spawn new ventures. Thus, midsize facilities play a critical role in the materials research enterprise.
The ubiquity of these facilities is one of their greatest strengths: as research needs are identified and as researchers coordinate their activities, it is possible to initiate such a facility, although doing so is becoming more difficult. That is, midsize facilities represent sufficiently small levels of investment that they can be (and have been) spread widely around the country. Most importantly, this characteristic allows smaller and nonelite research institutions to participate and contribute effectively.
As the role of midsize facilities has expanded, the need for a systematic and careful assessment of best principles for successful operation has grown, especially in a fiscally constrained era. In response to this need, the National Research Council formed the Committee on Smaller Facilities in 2003, with support from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy, to examine the broader issues of optimizing current and future investments in the facility infrastructure of materials research. The committee was charged to examine facilities in the range between “small” and “large,” to identify the key features of success, and to recommend strategies for effective operation and utilization.
In its analysis, the committee defined “midsize facility” as follows: A midsize facility maintains and operates one or more pieces of equipment at a university or national laboratory and has the following characteristics:
Facilitates scientific and/or technological research for multiple users;
Provides services on local, regional, or national scales;
Is open to all qualified users subject to generally agreed-upon rules of access;
Has a resident staff to assist, train, and/or serve users; and
Has a replacement capitalization cost of between approximately $1 million and $50 million and an annual operating budget (including staff salaries, overhead, supplies, routine maintenance and upgrades, and so on) in the range from about $100,000 up to several million (2004) dollars.
Federal program managers, university administrators, and the media have blurred the distinction between a “center” and a “facility.” The committee distinguishes these entities in the following manner:
A center is a collection of investigators with a particular research focus.
A facility is a collection of instrumentation, equipment, or physical resources that enables investigators to conduct certain appropriate activities.
Facilities provide sets of tools that expand the capabilities of groups of researchers. Throughout this report, however, the committee argues that a successful midsize
facility must be more than just a collection of equipment: staff, users, operating funds, specialized environments, and a management plan are some of the essential additional ingredients for successful operations.
Midsize facilities are distinct from small facilities in being large enough to require a dedicated and explicit infrastructure for their sustained success. They are distinct from large facilities in being small enough to be flexible and responsive to the needs of a relatively local user community and in possessing equipment the scale and cost of which allow duplication, when demand merits, in different regions of the nation.
The committee has identified real challenges facing the future viability of midsize facilities. Prominent among these are providing and sustaining long-term infrastructure, networking with other facilities, balancing competing purposes while maintaining a clear mission, and cooperating with commercial interests in compliance with federal guidelines for noncompetition. These facilities are sufficiently sophisticated in structure and content that careful stewardship is necessary: a complex support network (both individually and collectively) is required to maximize their effectiveness.
The committee estimates that there are about 500 midsize facilities nationwide that provide essential instrumentation support for materials research. The aggregated annual operating budget of this collection of facilities is estimated by the committee to be on the order of several hundred million dollars; the replacement cost for the equipment now in place at these facilities is estimated to be several billion dollars.
The committee summarizes its analysis with several conclusions:
Importance and uniqueness. Shared experimental facilities in the form of midsize multiuser facilities are a key component in maintaining the nation at the leading edge of materials research, education, and training. Midsize facilities are everywhere in the materials research landscape, and they offer unique capabilities and benefits, especially when compared with current small-scale and large-scale facilities.
Need for long-term planning and commitment. A continuing and fundamental challenge facing a majority of small to midsize facilities is planning, securing, and maintaining the long-term infrastructure necessary for productivity and success.
Need for systematic program planning. The network of midsize facilities can no longer be treated as atomized and as a set of noninteracting units. There is a substantial opportunity for improved efficiency and effectiveness of the existing network, with increased cooperation, coordination, and consolidation among the individual facilities.
A network ripe for optimization. As a special category within the U.S. materials research enterprise, the class of midsize facilities described herein could contribute even more to national, regional, and local research priorities; it could serve even larger numbers of investigators; and it is ripe for optimization as a system. Certain facilities are closer than others are to optimal operations already: midsize facilities with clear stewards for ongoing operations and maintenance, facilities wholly embedded in the fabric of a larger laboratory infrastructure, and facilities well coordinated with other resources in their respective regions are operating effectively.
Clearly, there is a disconnect between what researchers at midsize facilities perceive to be needed for their success and the level of resources currently available. As directed by its charge to consider revenue-neutral options in these fiscally constrained times, the committee identifies reallocation of existing resources in materials research as an option for addressing the needs of midsize facilities. Preferential support should be provided to midsize facilities that are regionally based; that have the attributes of good management, organization, and potential for sustainability; and that are large enough to offer professional staff training and career prospects.
In order for the United States to develop and sustain a leadership role in materials research, the committee makes the recommendations presented below. The responsibilities should be shared between the research agencies and the community (as proposers, reviewers, managers, host institutions, and users). The first two recommendations identify pathways for realizing additional economies and for enhancing the effectiveness of the network of midsize facilities. The second pair of recommendations identifies means for strengthening individual facilities by recognizing the long-term commitments necessary for successful operations. The final recommendation recognizes the importance of follow-up and follow-through via periodic reviews of the investments made in midsize facilities.
Recommendation 1: COLLECTIVE STEWARDSHIP
For the United States to maintain national capabilities to perform world-class, forefront scientific research in materials, the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, and other federal agencies should foster cooperative, responsible planning among all stakeholders to provide collective stewardship for midsize facilities. That is, midsize facilities require explicit programmatic planning for their support and oversight. Existing successful facilities should continue, and new opportunities should be created through the reallocation of resources.
Recommendation 2: REGIONAL NETWORKING
To improve the effectiveness of the current national investment in midsize facilities, agencies should realize the economies of networking. That is, midsize facilities participating in a regional network should be given priority for expansions of capability and capacity.
Teaming among and consolidation of neighboring facilities to form regional resources should be strongly encouraged by the agencies.
Midsize facilities that are successful in this regard should be provided with adequate long-term infrastructure support.
Proposals for new midsize facilities—or for significant changes to existing midsize facilities—should be viewed within the context of the particular region involved; such proposals should develop a strong business case based on measured need within the region and should outline expected relationships with existing resources in the region.
To facilitate networking, midsize facilities should develop an online inventory of resources that would enable users to optimally identify facilities for their use and to allow managers to make referrals.
Midsize facilities in materials research depend on many different programs, agencies, and organizations to gather enough funds to make investments in capital costs and to finance operating expenses. There is no single program agency that oversees their long-term viability. In contrast, the large national user facilities have explicit program agency stewards that oversee their long-term viability. Such coordinated stewardship is lacking for midsize facilities, and they suffer individually and collectively as a result. Typically, host institutions (usually universities) do not monitor the effectiveness of the facility, federal agency funds provided for the acquisition or construction of new instrumentation are not reviewed for impact, and user communities are not sufficiently informed to take advantage of alternatives. Explicit, programmatic planning at the level of the federal agencies should help coordinate and connect midsize facilities with mechanisms for their long-term viability. With support for long-term infrastructure, facilities would be able to focus on the important challenges of training and educating the materials scientists and technologists of the future, developing the next generation of instrumentation and analytical techniques, and providing an even larger community of researchers with access to enhanced capabilities for research.
Stewardship should also take into account the regional context. The development of a network of regional user facilities would facilitate effective use of instrumentation at institutions with less than a full-time need for it, encourage rapid sharing of new methods for use of instrumentation, and facilitate user access to
related technologies of increasing importance for interdisciplinary projects. Reliable support for long-term infrastructure would provide incentives for facilities to develop such regional networks. The committee offers the hub-and-spoke model as one example of an effective regional network. In the current fiscal climate, these networks are essential to ensuring that researchers have access to the instrumentation they need, since the nation cannot afford to place midsize materials research facilities and instruments at every possible location. Further, before facilities are approved or significant enhancements to capabilities are awarded, proposals should be evaluated in a regional context by the federal agencies. Likewise, consideration should be given to a more regionally or nationally minded approach to planning for and purchasing instruments, rather than the approach of engaging in many individual negotiations.
The committee has observed that most high-quality facilities require some degree of additional support in order to provide stability, to improve the instrumentation, and to fulfill the facilities’ educational responsibilities. It is anticipated that a portion of such facilities’ operations and maintenance costs will be met by user fees. Thus, the importance of such fees as a line item in funded grants should be recognized by the agencies. Given that these high-quality regional facilities will be expected to address the needs of neighboring institutions, some of the operations and maintenance costs should be provided directly by the research agencies. Similarly, these facilities should be encouraged to develop new techniques and/or instrumentation. Thus, midsize facilities should be planned and operated in a manner that is intermediate between the smallest service centers with single, commercially purchased instruments and large national laboratories such as synchrotron radiation or neutron-scattering facilities.
Recommendation 3: LONG-TERM INFRASTRUCTURE
Host institutions and supporting agencies should give high priority to maintaining the long-term viability of midsize facilities, including long-term infrastructure such as resident staff, normal operating costs including maintenance contracts, user training and support, education and outreach, and in-house development of instrumentation and techniques. Midsize facilities that are successful in the context of teaming should be provided with improved support.
The nation is currently making investments in sophisticated instrumentation without considering the commensurate long-term requirements of operations and maintenance. Facilities organized to provide access and support for sophisticated
instrumentation are struggling to identify the necessary resources to provide the dividends on the initial capital investment. The committee recommends that agencies supporting materials research explicitly recognize the needs of midsize facilities programmatically, thereby allowing midsize facilities to be judged fairly against one another on common grounds in competitive peer review. Stewardship mechanisms should reflect the specific needs of midsize facilities; for example, funding should be long term, and oversight should also be longer term and should be better matched to the activities of facilities. In a revenue-neutral environment, support for long-term infrastructure of successful facilities should be carefully judged within a region against awards for new facilities or significant enhancements to existing capabilities.
Recommendation 4: PROFESSIONAL STAFFING
Midsize facilities require extraordinarily talented and experienced staff. The career paths of these individuals should be respected and cultivated. A midsize facility should include technical and Ph.D.-level professional staff members who are offered opportunities for career development and/or participation in ongoing facility research. Operating plans for midsize facilities should explicitly address this issue.
Since midsize facilities serve users from different institutions who have a broad range of experience in using instrumentation and techniques, it is vital that the facilities have resident staff to provide user education and support. Professional staff members are also necessary to develop and improve a facility in order to address specialized needs and to take advantage of emerging scientific opportunities.
At the heart of fulfilling their mission is the reliance of midsize facilities on their experienced staff to engage users, operate and maintain instruments, and enhance instrumentation. Accordingly, the committee recommends that the educational efforts of midsize facilities should also emphasize programs that explicitly provide ongoing training and career development for facility support staff.
Recommendation 5: PERIODIC REVIEW
Successful performance should be identified and rewarded. Consistent with their long-term responsibilities, sponsors should periodically review midsize facilities to ensure that the facilities’ primary objectives are continuing to be met, potential improvements to operations and instrumentation are identified, and continued
funding is appropriate. The depth of the reviews should be commensurate with the funding levels.
The operation of a regional facility that effectively meets researchers’—and the nation’s—needs requires commitment, thoughtfulness, and effort considerably beyond what is required to maintain instruments for a single investigator or a small number of researchers. Periodic reviews provide opportunities to identify potential improvements to the facility’s operations and instrumentation, as well as to assess the adequacy of funding. Finally, situations in which facility operation is no longer appropriate can be identified. Review panels should be composed of experts from both the scientific and the midsize project management domains. Criteria to be considered in such reviews should include the following:
Instrument maintenance and upkeep;
Accessibility and openness to users, including mechanisms for new user education, support, and training;
The quality of educational programs, including professional training and development of staff;
The development of new techniques or instrumentation;
Effectiveness in meeting regional needs, including strong links to other facilities (small, midsize, or large) offering similar or complementary capabilities;
Mechanisms for incorporating suggestions for improvements from the facility’s network of users;
Evidence of sound management plans and practices; and
A record of cooperation and noncompetition with commercial interests in compliance with federal guidelines and regulations.
The committee recommends that periodic reviews of midsize facilities be used as one of the primary criteria in evaluating whether support for a facility’s operations should be continued. One possible outcome of such a review might be an increase in funding for a facility’s operations or improvements to its instrumentation. Another could be the transfer of the instrumentation to some other host institution. Consequently, the federal government should retain title to the instrumentation at a regional user facility for at least one major review cycle.
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In closing, the committee emphasizes again the pivotal and invigorating role that midsize facilities have played in materials research. By providing access to
shared tools, training, and resources, these facilities have been a cornerstone of research for a broad cross section of the community. Since the days of the first interdisciplinary research laboratories in the 1960s, materials research has blazed a trail in recognizing and responding to the needs of its investigators. It is now time to acknowledge the need for the next phase of transition, from a system of loosely connected independent facilities to a networked effort of coordinated facilities. By leveraging such opportunities, the materials research enterprise will continue to offer a transformative and effective path to the future.