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Time to Redo NSF Research Centers in "Grand Challenge" Model

It's time to try a new model for national innovation efforts. Approaches introduced by the X-Prize and Google's "grand challenges" have shown how "center-based" engineering research doesn't have to be the only way big problems get solved. That's the conclusion of a new report that proposes a makeover for the National Science Foundation's Engineering Research Center (ERC) program.

Conceived in 1985, the idea of the ERC is to perform as an interdisciplinary, multi-institutional center that brings academics, industry and government people together to develop new technologies and help foster new engineers. The NSF has founded 67 ERCs around the country that are given credit for producing some 12,000 engineering graduates and "hundreds of millions of dollars of regional and national economic benefits," according to "A New Vision for Center-Based Engineering Research." The report, available in pre-publication form, was produced by a broad set of contributors in academia, industry and government.

Now it's time for a different approach to innovation called "convergent engineering," which draws on practices adopted by major innovators in industry and involves "tackling larger, grand challenge-like problems whose solutions offer the greatest benefits for society," the report stated. "While many of these systems were designed to be used in a corporate context as a better way to achieve business objectives, they can be adapted to a university center environment," the report explained.

How do the old and new approaches differ? Rather than being led top-down by a lone principal investigator, as one example, a convergent engineering research center (CERC) is "deeply collaborative" and "team-based," bringing together the disciplines, skills and capabilities needed to address a specific research opportunity.

One best practice is for team members to present value propositions for their goals that lay out the need, the proposed approach, the costs and benefits and the status of the competition. These value propositions are then critiqued by their teammates.

Amid this swirl of activity, the report suggested, the CERC could seek out opportunities for students to practice their design and entrepreneurship skills through internships and exposure to industrial and public sector expertise in collaborations, workshops and seminars as well as "personnel exchanges."

To enable participants to stay on top of collaboration, the CERC would rely on "state-of-the-art web-based collaboration platforms," including performance dashboards. The metrics monitored should be spelled out in the center's strategic plan, and they should be, "minimal, essential and aligned with center milestones and processes." Those metrics shouldn't just emphasize output, but also "the impacts of center activities," the report pointed out, such as placement of students who have graduated into "positions of influence" or the wide use of "intellectual value developed in the center."

While convergent engineering research centers may share characteristics from one center to another, the report acknowledged that "there will be no optimal, one-size-fits-all approach." In fact, three possible models are described:

  • A grand challenge-based model;
  • A prize-based innovation model; and
  • A federal-state-local partnership model.

"This set of models is by no means comprehensive, but all of them are consistent with aspects of the committee's vision," the committee noted. "They focus on big, complicated problems whose solutions will bring large societal or economic impacts. They depend on the convergence of knowledge from different disciplines and on deeply collaborative and diverse research teams. And they will require NSF resources to be leveraged with other resources, including those from other federal agencies, states, international players, and the private sector." After all, the committee added, "NSF alone cannot be expected to meet all of the financial or the intellectual requirements for this critical initiative."

The report is available for free download in digital form or as a paperback for $38 on the National Academies website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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