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AAAS Report: National Science Foundation Centers Support Transformative Research, Provide Compelling S&T Education

The National Science Foundation’s program to create large-scale, transformative research collaborations in the United States has contributed to significant advances in science and technology, according to a new review of the program conducted by AAAS.

The NSF Science & Technology Centers Integrative Partnerships program supports universities, national laboratories, industrial organizations, and others that join together to create new multidisciplinary research centers. From nanobiotechnology to microbial oceanography, the AAAS report concludes, the centers successfully pursue innovative basic science while promoting its applications to larger societal issues.

At Colorado State University’s Center for Multi-Scale Modeling of Atmospheric Processes, for example, researchers from more than a dozen universities and government agencies such as NASA and NOAA are working together on powerful computer models to improve predictions of U.S. climate change. The Team for Research in Ubiquitous Secure Technology, based at the University of California, Berkeley, includes public policy and law experts in its extensive cybersecurity program.

Edward Derrick

The centers “foster collaboration between faculty with an orientation toward basic science and those interested in more applied and clinical research, and as such enable a true integration of science and technology,” said Edward Derrick, a co-author of the AAAS report and acting director of AAAS Science and Policy Programs. In interviews and surveys conducted for the report, Derrick noted, “the participants praised the outcomes as enriching to their research and subsequent careers.”

The centers also have provided a “compelling” education to a diverse generation of researchers, agreed Sally Mason, president of the University of Iowa and chair of the blue ribbon panel that advised the work of the AAAS group. “At a time in our nation’s history when we need to redouble our efforts to encourage young people to become scientists and engineers,” she said, the centers “provide a model for innovation in addressing the grand challenges before us.”

The AAAS report, which analyzed the work of 17 centers funded in three grant competitions held between 1998 and 2005-06, is the first review of the NSF program since 1995. In fiscal year 2010, NSF spent $57.77 million on the 17 centers.

Daryl E. Chubin, director of the AAAS Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity and lead author of the report, said the centers “encourage, facilitate, and enable established researchers to enlarge and increase the riskiness of their research agendas, which are rooted in the integration of science and technology.”

Among the findings of the AAAS report:

Transformative research. The centers have encouraged the development of new technologies, new instrumentation, and new approaches to pressing societal challenges such as water use and cybersecurity.

Wider collaborations. Faculty at the centers engage in more interdisciplinary, problem-oriented research than many of their peers, and publish in a wider variety of journals. University participants also said that the centers had encouraged more contacts with industry, and facilitated a shifting set of partnerships over time.

Expanding workforce. The centers have an excellent track record of producing new masters’ and Ph.D. students for the science and engineering workforce. But they have a more mixed record on their outreach to K-12 education, with many centers unsure how to incorporate this outreach into their overall program goals.

Growing diversity. The AAAS study found that the centers have had “modest” success in bringing individuals who have been underrepresented historically in sciences and engineering to campus. Once enrolled, however, women and minorities make up a larger percentage of the centers than they do in the individual science disciplines that contribute to the centers’ research.

Chubin said this last element might prove to be one of the most important outcomes of the NSF program. The centers “represent an opportunity to change the face of the U.S. science and engineering workforce,” he said. “This could be its legacy of transformation.”

The full reports by the blue ribbon panel and the AAAS study team, which included Irwin Feller, senior visiting scientist at AAAS and Pallavi Phartiyal, senior program associate in the AAAS Research Competitiveness Program, are available at the AAAS Capacity Center Web site.


Read the “AAAS Review of the NSF Science & Technology Centers Integrative Partnerships (STC) Program, 2000-2009.”

Read the report of the blue ribbon panel, “THE NSF Science & Technology Centers Integrative Partnerships Program, 2000-2009.”

Learn more about the National Science Foundation Science & Technology Centers Integrative Partnership program.

Learn more about the AAAS Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity.