Optimizing the Effectiveness of Midsize Facilities
Midsize multiuser facilities play a major role in materials research. They give a broad range of researchers access to equipment and expertise for fabricating, characterizing, and measuring the properties of materials. They serve critical national and strategic needs in advancing the basic sciences. Furthermore, the developments in instrumentation (such as electron-beam writers) that underpin critical tools for industry are often achieved in midsize facilities. Likewise, these facilities play an essential role in the education and training of future scientists and engineers by ensuring that students have familiarity and experience with the latest instrumentation and techniques.
It is widely perceived that midsize facilities for materials research are not optimally developed or fully utilized. The 1999 National Research Council report Condensed Matter and Materials Physics: Basic Research for Tomorrow’s Technology,1 for example, found that a great burden had been placed on small research centers in universities and government laboratories and that it was appropriate to strengthen this part of the nation’s research infrastructure. Today, that finding is as relevant as ever.
Facilities have a number of important functions:
Enabling forefront science and technology,
Acquiring the necessary research equipment and instrumentation,
Developing new instruments or techniques,
Training technically skilled staff,
Carrying out basic and collaborative research activities,
Educating future scientists and engineers,
Training and assisting users, and
Maintaining and repairing equipment.
Noting the lack of sufficient attention to the components of the midsize materials research facilities, previous studies have stated that, in particular, the training, hiring, and retention of staff as well as equipment maintenance and repair were often inadequate.2 More recently, the escalating cost of instrumentation and the associated large cost-sharing requirements of some instrumentation programs have become a major issue. It is also clear that the high cost of facilities necessarily precludes the establishment of cutting-edge facilities at every research university, government laboratory, and industrial company involved in materials research and development. For example, the replacement costs for the equipment now in place at the 500 or so midsize materials facilities are estimated to be $1 billion to $2 billion. The investment required for the replacement of current equipment is far too great to be realized, leading to the conclusion that sharing facilities and resources is increasingly necessary for the future.
Driving this study is a concern that significant opportunities over a wide cross section of scientific disciplines might be missed if the resources offered by small and midsize user facilities are not fully exploited. The capabilities offered by midsize facilities are generally more wide ranging and much more expensive than are those encountered in a single investigator’s laboratory; the sharing of resources has therefore become a necessity. Yet along with the rapidly increasing capabilities of instruments such as electron-beam writers and electron microscopes has come an escalation of the cost of acquisition and maintenance, to the point that smaller facilities typical of individual institutions can no longer afford their purchase and upkeep.
FINDINGS AND OBSERVATIONS
Today, making scientific advances requires access to sophisticated facilities and instrumentation. The role of such facilities in materials synthesis, fabrication, characterization, and measurement is steadily increasing. In fact, these facilities are essential to the scientific infrastructure of the nation. It is well recognized that efficient and cost-effective utilization of sophisticated and expensive instrumentation is best achieved by making the instrumentation widely available. Shared experimental facilities have thus become an increasingly important part of materials research and development (R&D), and it is increasingly difficult to carry out forefront interdisciplinary materials research without access to at least some of the capabilities of such facilities. There are significant opportunities for accelerating scientific advances in materials and nanotechnology research by invigorating such facilities and allocating their resources to best effect.3 Accordingly, the committee reemphasizes the importance of midsize facilities.
The growth of interdisciplinary research, the emphasis on research focused on developing new devices and structures, and the impetus toward nanoscience and engineering are also fueling a growing demand for facilities with more sophisticated instrumentation, such as high-resolution secondary ion mass spectrometers and atomic resolution transmission electron microscopes (TEMs). This trend is especially evident in the nanosciences, given that characterization of the structural and electronic properties of materials is dependent on the routine and ready availability of tools such as atomic force microscopy and analytic transmission electron microscopy. Furthermore, as materials with greater complexity are being developed, there is a growing need within the materials community for multiple types of characterization methods. Indeed, much of the intellectual challenge and technological impact comes from investigating and designing materials that are multifunctional. These issues are an inevitable outgrowth of interdisciplinary approaches to materials research.
Concurrently, the costs of instrumentation, service contracts, and staffing have increased substantially in recent years. It is unlikely that this trend will abate, which puts growing emphasis on the need for more effective management of instrumentation facilities. Furthermore, not only has existing instrumentation increased in cost, but capabilities have also expanded, further raising the cost of instrumentation. With the possible exception of general-purpose scientific com-
putation, the expansion in instrumentation capabilities has always been accompanied by substantial price increases.
Exemplifying these price increases, the TEMs of the 1970s lacked any analytical capabilities and were about $1 per volt (i.e., typically $100,000); those in the 1980s often had energy dispersive spectroscopy (EDS) capabilities (about $250,000); and those available today have field-emission electron sources and capabilities for electron energy loss spectroscopy (EELS), atomic resolution, and scanning transmission electron microscopy (STEM) (about $2 million to $3 million). The next generation of TEMs will likely incorporate some form of lens aberration correction. These new tools bring significant advances in resolution by correcting spherical aberration in the column, providing electron beams of precisely controlled shape and confined energies to minimize chromatic aberrations. Similar increases in capability have occurred in instrumentation for secondary ion mass spectrometry (SIMS), nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), and equivalent sophisticated techniques.
In addition to access to costly instruments, specialty environments such as clean rooms, hazard-containment laboratories, water purification systems, chemical usage, and so on may be key attractors at shared user facilities. Such embedded infrastructure may be as costly as the instrumentation and therefore is only affordable at shared facilities. Midsize facilities often offer access to these advanced R&D environments to commercial collaborators; the partnerships can invigorate local industry and even spawn new ventures. In the face of increasing globalization, midsize facilities associated with such regions of vigorous technological research and development can enable improved competitiveness.
As the cost of interdisciplinary instrumentation and facilities has increased, host institutions have become less able (in some cases, less willing) to afford the proportionate cost sharing, either directly or indirectly through the additional provision of support staff, technical staff, and other infrastructural contributions that are required to support those facilities. This shortcoming has been compounded by the increase in materials research activities in nontraditional areas such as biomaterials and nanobiotechnology. Furthermore, many universities, large and small—especially those that are state-funded—have been under severe budgetary constraints for several years, jeopardizing the provision of permanent staff and technical support for the long-term viability of facilities.
As a facility reaches a certain size, a number of operations and management issues require the transition from a loose confederation of funding and management sources to a more centralized system that can support the core infrastructure of the facility. In this report, the committee recognizes a similar need for midsize
facilities that have reached this level of “critical mass.” That is, they have sufficient size and complexity, either in instrumentation or in the supporting technical staffing or even building infrastructure, to require that significant attention and resources be spent on supporting these core activities. The committee terms these core activities long-term infrastructure and recognizes that, as required at the larger national facilities, steady funding and stewardship are required to make midsize facilities work more effectively over the long run.
The committee has identified real challenges facing the future viability of small and midsize facilities. Prominent among these challenges are the following:
Providing and sustaining long-term infrastructure, which includes
Diverse and stable funding,
Stable and secure staffing,
Visibility to the user community,
Sound management and operational practices, and
Maintaining a balanced and effective suite of equipment;
Networking with other facilities;
Balancing competing purposes; and
Cooperating with commercial interests in compliance with federal guidelines for noncompetition.
These challenges must be addressed in an environment of roughly flat federal funding (in constant dollars) as well as declining state and private resources. In this financial environment, there is already evidence of a possible decline in U.S. leadership in materials research and technology. For example, the fraction of foreign students seeking a U.S. education in the physical sciences has fallen,4 and the proportion of publications in the physical sciences from U.S. institutions is decreasing in the overall international context.5 The time is right to optimize existing resources in order to exploit latent opportunities in the current facilities system and to be quite systematic and judicious in the development of new facilities.
Midsize facilities in the United States that provide essential instrumentation support to materials research are estimated by the committee to number about 500 separate facilities; their sizes and levels of involvement vary. They represent a
NSF InfoBrief (NSF 04-326, June 2004): “Graduate Enrollment in Science and Engineering Fields Reaches a New Peak; First-Time Enrollment of Foreign Students Declines.” Available online at http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/infbrief/nsf04326/; last accessed June 1, 2005.
M. Heylin, “Science Is Becoming Truly Worldwide,” Chemical and Engineering News, June 14, 2004, p. 38.
capital investment of greater than a billion dollars and an annual operating cost over several hundred million dollars. At current funding levels, this investment exceeds the capability of any one federal funding agency to sustain.
This study found the current operational state of a large proportion of midsize facilities, especially those in universities, to be precarious, jeopardizing the future well-being of the materials research enterprise. Initiatives to exploit recent improvements in the capabilities of instrumentation are severely limited because of the associated costs, threatening stagnation of the field. In general, there is not strong support for the long-term infrastructure that a midsize facility requires to continually be successful. To maintain its preeminent international leadership position in science and technology, the United States must address these and related issues.
Midsize facilities fill a key role in the materials research enterprise. Once dominated by tabletop instruments, materials research has blossomed into an endeavor whose threshold for individual investment has risen substantially over the past decades. By centralizing resources (in terms of equipment, staff, and expertise), midsize facilities provide much-needed focal points of innovation and creativity for research, education, and training. Because of the economic benefits of pooled resources and the escalating costs of instrumentation, midsize facilities can deliver unique capabilities to materials researchers that the researchers cannot individually or independently afford to own, maintain, or operate. Finally, the ubiquity of midsize 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 are) spread widely around the country. Most importantly, this characteristic allows smaller and nonelite research universities to participate and contribute effectively.
The committee’s analysis suggests that midsize facilities represent considerable untapped potential. Many such facilities, a large fraction of them established with federal funds, could serve a considerably broader community as well as advance the development of both techniques and instruments if optimized resources were provided for those purposes. Because of the lack of explicit and dedicated programmatic support for the infrastructure that a midsize facility requires, a significant number of existing facilities are struggling to meet a set of increasingly competing and complex demands.
The greatest challenge faced by midsize facilities is in their long-term infrastructure—which includes such mainstays as resident technical staff, support for sustained operations and maintenance, user training and support, education and outreach, and in-house development of new instrumentation and experimental techniques. Responses to the committee’s facilities questionnaire indicate that,
with rare exceptions, facilities managers believe that they have insufficient operations budgets, and concerns about maintenance expenses are universal.
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.
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). 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.
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 emphasizes 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 differ from the large national facilities because of the lack of a programmatic home for any and for all of them. That is,
the large national user facilities have explicit program agency stewards that oversee their long-term viability. In many cases, investments for capital costs and operating expenses at a midsize facility are made by different programs within a federal agency, by different agencies of the federal government, or even by state, local, or private organizations.
Midsize facilities suffer individually and collectively from the lack of coordinated stewardship: 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 about alternatives to make judicious choices. Explicit, programmatic planning at the level of the federal agencies should help coordinate and connect midsize facilities with mechanisms for their long-term viability. The steward of a midsize facility should be identified as the party most responsible for the continuing operations and maintenance of that facility. In many cases, this party will be a federal research program; in some instances, it may include a state program or an institutional entity such as a university provost’s office or the office of a national laboratory director.
Stewardship should also take into account the regional context. Instrumentation of the sort housed in midsize facilities is a long-term obligation (both in terms of personnel and upkeep) that is not necessarily addressed well in the current network of facilities. Since the nation cannot afford to place midsize materials research facilities and instruments at every possible location and since many institutions have considerably less than a full-time need for them, the development of a system of regional user facilities is an effective way to fully address the diverse needs of midsize facilities.
It is also highly desirable that these facilities be actively engaged in networking with other facilities that have similar capabilities or complementary instrumentation. These relationships will encourage rapid sharing of new methods for use of instrumentation and will facilitate user access to related technologies of increasing importance for interdisciplinary projects. The committee believes that by explicitly planning for the operation and support of a system of coordinated midsize facilities, agencies can realize certain economies to allow the provision of specific incentives and to expand the effectiveness of the system as a whole. 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 engaging in many individual negotiations.
Making use of the existing facilities would allow regional outreach to proceed more rapidly. Reliable support for long-term infrastructure, for instance, would
provide incentives and would enable these facilities to take 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. The committee offers the hub-and-spoke model as one example of an effective regional network.
Moreover, 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.
Many already-existing facilities and instruments could greatly enhance the overall research and educational effectiveness of U.S. universities, 4-year colleges, and community colleges, as well as the productivity of local industry and companies that do not otherwise have access to such capabilities. For instance, regional facilities located in areas of high industrial concentration and activity would be expected to have a larger role in impacting the regional development of technology.
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. In a revenue-neutral environment, support for long-term infra-
structure of successful facilities should be carefully judged within a region against awards for new facilities or significant enhancements to existing capabilities. 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.
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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Midsize facilities have played a pivotal and invigorating role 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.