[Image above] The United States National Science and Technology Council Subcommittee on the Materials Genome Initiative has issued a new strategic plan (right). The new plan builds on the advances made since the MGI was established in 2011 (left). Credit: National Science and Technology Council Subcommittee
In 2011, President Barack Obama introduced the Materials Genome Initiative—an ambitious vision to accelerate new materials discovery and increase global competitiveness of U.S. businesses.
The goal of the MGI was to reduce the time for materials development-to-deployment by 50%, or about 10 years—and for less cost. The MGI was motivated by the urgent need for new materials solutions for national challenges in clean energy, national security, and human welfare.
The authors of the 2011 MGI whitepaper understood that success would require building an infrastructure of computational tools, experimental tools, collaborative networks, and digital data. A four-part strategic plan drove the first decade of the MGI:
- Equip the next-generation materials workforce;
- Enable a paradigm shift in materials development;
- Integrate experiments, computation, and theory; and
- Facilitate access to materials data.
James Warren, director of the NIST Materials Genome Program, was on the National Science and Technology Council (NTSC) subcommittee that drafted the 2011 white paper launching the MGI. He has remained a staunch advocate for the MGI, its potential, and especially for laying the groundwork to bring the concept to reality.
In a June 2021 interview with ACerS editors (see the Bulletin and Ceramic Tech Chat), Warren said about the MGI, “…the focus is really on the evolution of this infrastructure. So, it’s in that sense a meta initiative, which is we are trying to build the things that allow us to make the materials. … A lot of these tools are about managing data or how do you do a computation. And it’s not like we want to make the next great battery. We want to make the technologies that allow somebody to make the next great battery.”
In November 2021, the NSTC subcommittee marked the 10th anniversary of the MGI by issuing a new, comprehensive five-year strategic plan for the MGI. (Warren served on the 2021 subcommittee as well.) The new strategic plan builds on the momentum sparked by the original MGI and sharpens the focus of the MGI’s potential to drive materials innovation, especially with respect to deploying new materials into service. The side-by-side “then and now” comparison of the MGI at the top of this article shows how the new strategy expands on advances made in the last decade and anticipates a shift to manufacturing.
The document’s stated goal is to provide “a vision to align the MGI community across the continuum from research and development through deployment, and identifies goals for the next five years with objectives and actions to be taken by the community to advance the MGI.”
This new strategic plan comprises three goals:
- Unify the materials innovation infrastructure;
- Harness the power of materials data; and
- Educate, train, and connect the materials R&D workforce.
Unify the materials innovation infrastructure (MII)
As Warren noted, the MGI is all about building an infrastructure within a research ecosystem that allows it to grow and evolve. The first strategic goal reflects this focus as the largest of the three goals (15 of 36 pages are dedicated to it) and homes in on developing the needed interdisciplinary tools to support the MGI, i.e., a materials innovation infrastructure. These include computational tools for modeling, simulation, and theory; experimental tools for synthesis, characterization, and processing; integrated research platforms; and data infrastructure.
Three objectives are outlined for the MGI. Objective 1 is “Build, bridge, and bolster elements of the materials innovation infrastructure (MII).” Elements of the objective include addressing gaps in computational tools and expanding availability of experimental tools, more and better synthesis and processing tools, and development of multimodal characterization tools and high-throughput tools. The community will be called on to develop integrated materials platforms and identify incentives for collaboration, taking guidance from industry exemplars of similar platforms. Building out a comprehensive data infrastructure with tools and standards that conform to FAIR data principles will be a necessary part. FAIR also required fairness, so achieving this objective means removing barriers, especially those confronting minority serving institutions, such as limited access to state-of-the-art instrumentation.
Objective 2 is “Foster a national materials data network, a community-led alliance of data generators and users from product development and manufacturing, to recycling.” This objective addresses the challenge of incenting the research community to participate in creating a national materials data network. This objective is quite a significant challenge that spans proprietary versus publicly funded datasets, compatibility of data repositories, data standards and protocols, and the need for automated workflows for managing large volumes of data.
Objective 3 is “Accelerate adoption of the MII through national grand challenges.” The idea is to raise awareness and build community around the MGI while addressing national and global grand challenges. It helps to learn from those who have been on similar journeys, and the hope is to leverage lessons learned from the Human Genome Project.
Harness the power of materials data
This goal has a single objective, which is to accelerate R&D using artificial intelligence (AI). However, meeting this objective will challenge the materials research community to solve the thorny issues related to data: adopting and adhering to FAIR principles, incentivizing participation, assessing data quality, and translating AI into manufacturing environments.
In the ACerS interview, Warren explained why he is keen on the power of AI in the MGI context. “There is no question in my mind that, with the exception of probably biology and healthcare, materials is one of the most likely lucrative aspects of the application of AI that you can imagine because you’re going to make stuff that people want. It’s really that simple,” he says.
Already, the MGI has inspired the community is responding to these challenges. For example, the Materials Research Data Alliance is a young grassroots organization bringing together researchers and stakeholders (such as publishers and professional societies) to bite off manageable chunks to work on in Working Groups. To date, five Working Groups have been established on problems related to interoperability, workflow, data repositories, and metadata.
Additionally, the National Institute of Standards and Technology launched the Research Data Framework in 2019 to “provide the stakeholder community with a structured approach to develop a customizable strategy for the management of research data.” It is an ambitious, aggressive initiative that cuts across disciplines and involves stakeholders from bench scientists to CEOs to librarians.
Educate, train, and connect the materials R&D workforce
The three objectives of this strategic goal are to
- Address current challenges in materials R&D education,
- Train the next-generation workforce, and
- Connect talent to opportunity.
Data science used to be the purview of statisticians. No more. Universities are responding with data science programs connected to engineering programs. But the scope of this goal also reaches back into the K–12 years to students and educators. With tight curricula at all levels, the idea is to develop MGI-savvy curricula through the educational arc and to create enrichment experiences and internship-type opportunities that show the power of the MGI to make the world a better place—and worthy of a young person’s investment of talent.
Learn more about the MGI and its history at https://www.mgi.gov/about.