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NSF STCs Reviewed

September 13, 1996

The Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP) of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and Institute of Medicine (IOM) has completed a review of the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Science and Technology Centers (STC) program. COSEPUP recently released its conclusions which call for the continuation of the STC program, with some modifications.

The Committee concluded that most STCs are producing high quality, world class research that would not have been produced without the center structure. It found that the design of the STC program has been effective overall and fits well within NSF's strategic plan. Strengths of the STC program design include the open competition across NSF research directorates and the focus on long term commitment to complex research projects.

However, COSEPUP recommended that NSF consider a shorter maximum term for the centers. The STCs were designed to have an 11-year lifespan, including a two-year phase-out period, and COSEPUP argued that many centers will have accomplished their goals before the 11-year grant period is over.

The committee also recommended that research and the undergraduate and graduate education linked to the centers should be the paramount objective. NSF in recent years had begun emphasizing K-12 educational programs in the STCs. The committee suggested that centers should be allowed to judge the appropriateness of K-12 outreach.

COSEUP advised NSF to place greater weight on scientific and administrative leadership both in evaluating proposals to establish STCs and in the periodic reviews of the centers. One of the challenges facing the leadership of these centers is ensuring there is a true center rather than a group of independent scientists. Another challenge to leadership is maintaining research focus, particularly in the centers that are highly multi disciplinary.

The committee considered the STC program as a valid mode of support that helps balance the NSF portfolio of activities. In the view of the committee, "STCs constitute an experimental beginning of an effort to achieve balance. No evidence suggests that the limits of research problems best suited to center-like modes of support have been reached."

NSF established the STC program in 1987 to "fund important basic research and education activities and to encourage technology transfer and innovative approaches to interdisciplinary problems." With the first of the 25 centers reaching their eighth year and preparing to step down activities, NSF requested that COSEPUP conduct a study of the program as it considers whether the STC program should continue and, if so, in what form.

A copy of the report can be obtained from the National Academy Press, 800/ 624-6242 or via the World Wide Web at http://www.nas.edu.