The Center as a User Facility
The NIST Center for Neutron Research is a national facility whose mission is to ensure the availability of neutron-measurement capabilities to meet the needs of U.S. researchers from industry, university, and other government agencies. By providing a wide array of thermal and cold neutron instruments, as well as a broad range of sample environments and complementary analytical instruments, the NCNR enables measurements that help advance science and develop new technologies in the United States. Thus, the NCNR plays a key role in NIST’s mission to promote science, standards, and technology. New instruments and the planned upgrades to instruments that are part of the facility expansion will ensure that the NCNR remains competitive on the international stage.
The NCNR user community continues to flourish. The most recent call for proposals resulted in more than 380 proposals, requesting 2,240 instrument days of beam time and corresponding to an average instrument oversubscription of 2.3. (The comparable numbers in 2008 were 321 proposals requesting 1,820 instruments days corresponding to an average oversubscription of 2.0.) In 2009, the number of distinct NCNR research participants was approximately 2,200, with about 800 users coming to the NCNR (comparable to 2008 levels). With an average of approximately 50 users per instrument, productivity at the facility continues to be on par with European sources. U.S.-based participants included 67 percent from universities, 13 percent from other national laboratories, 9 percent from NIST outside the NCNR—including scientists from the Physics Laboratory, the Chemical Science and Technology Laboratory, and CSTL’s Polymers Division—and 5 percent from industry. With two-thirds of the beam time available for the user program and one-third reserved for internal use, the NCNR is meeting the needs of external users while continuing to attract and retain outstanding scientists. The flexibility inherent in unallocated time enhances the ability of NCNR scientists to bring in new users, provide rapid access for high-impact science, and work more effectively with industry by means of collaborative access. In addition to the peer-review process, industrial access is also fostered through participating research teams including, for example, the NCNR’s neutron imaging facility that has led (through an ongoing partnership between NIST and General Motors) to a better understanding of water management in membrane-based fuel cells. Finally, progress is good on efforts to develop an industry-university-government consortium centered on the new 10-meter SANS instrument that will be part of the expanded instrument suite in the new Guide Hall. For visitors to the NCNR, the addition of the new office building in the summer of 2010 will significantly improve the availability of user office space as well as laboratory space for sample preparation and complementary analytical methods.
The NCNR User Group (NUG) acts as a conduit to management regarding user concerns, and executive committee members of the NUG hold bimonthly telephone meetings with NIST staff. One key function of the committee is to poll users regarding their satisfaction with respect to the NCNR. The most recent survey was conducted in 2007 and included responses from students and postdoctoral researchers, staff members,
and external principal investigators. In the 2007 survey, users rated the training, facilities, and instruments very highly and the performance of NCNR personnel as excellent. Users’ concerns included the need for availability of specialized sample environments, easy access to data (on the Web, for example) after leaving the facility, the availability of software and associated tutorials for data analysis, and the compatibility of data formats among different facilities. The NUG is currently working to develop a questionnaire to poll users on their perceptions regarding the proposal review process. One concern expressed in advance of the new poll is the availability of an adequate number of informed reviewers as the number of proposals continues to rise—especially after the expansion is complete.
Despite the steady increase in proposal numbers, the beam-time allocation process at the NCNR is well run. Proposals are submitted on the Web and reviewed by from three to five external reviewers as well as by members of the appropriate Beam Time Allocation Committee (BTAC). Members of the BTAC, appointed by the NCNR, are all external to the NCNR and serve for nominal terms of 3 years. The regular rotation of BTAC members is encouraged so as to maintain fresh perspectives and to reduce the burden on individual scientists.
The National Science Foundation-supported Center for High Resolution Neutron Science program, renewed for an additional 5 years in the fall of 2009, continues to play a critical role in the success of the NCNR. This program provides direct support for instrument scientists associated with a subset of neutron scattering instruments. It also supports a wide variety of educational and outreach activities, including the summer schools on neutron scattering techniques, the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships program, and remote learning opportunities for SANS. The program is an outstanding example of collaborative activity among government agencies, and it contributes significantly to developing the next generation of scientists and engineers conversant in neutron scattering.
Although security is an ongoing issue, NIST and the NCNR are working hard to maintain an appropriate security program that preserves the efficient use of the facility. Access to the NCNR is facilitated by the Users’ Office, with a staff of two. Foreign visitors must apply for access 35 days before arriving at the NCNR, which is on par with or better than the time requirements for visits to other national facilities. The system seems to preserve all safety requirements while keeping the spirit needed in a center of learning. Safety training at the NCNR remains thorough. The ability to train prior to arriving at the facility is helpful to streamlining the process.