11-12 materials research superconductor

[Image above] This composite image looks inside the custom-designed molecular beam epitaxy system that Brookhaven physicists use to create single-crystal thin films for studying superconducting cuprate properties. Credit: Brookhaven National Laboratory

In February, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a new decadal survey on materials research. The report, which was meant to identify promising future directions for research in materials science, did not impress its sponsors.

At an NSF Mathematical and Physical Sciences Advisory Committee meeting in May, Linda Sapochak, director of the NSF’s Division of Materials Research (DMR), explained she teamed up with Linda Horton, head of DOE’s Materials Sciences and Engineering Division, to initiate the survey in 2016.

The way DMR apportioned its budget among its eight topical research programs had remained largely the same for years, Sapochak said, and she decided to “really, really think strategically about the division, about how we can make the best investment for materials research,” as reported in an American Institute of Physics FYI article.

Sapochak says the final report did not provide the guidance she was seeking; specifically, it did not identify science trends or emerging areas, and many of the recommendations mapped onto activities already underway.

And yet the report did draw a dire conclusion—U.S. leadership in materials science is in jeopardy due to the scale of investment by countries in Europe and East Asia.

Five months later, in October, an expert review panel proposed another way to bolster NSF’s materials research—by elevating DMR from a division to the directorate level.

Division vs directorate—what’s the difference?

NSF is divided into seven directorates that support science and engineering research and education:

  1. Biological Sciences;
  2. Computer and Information Science and Engineering;
  3. Engineering;
  4. Geosciences;
  5. Mathematical and Physical Sciences;
  6. Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences; and
  7. Education and Human Resources.

Each directorate is further subdivided into divisions, such as earth sciences (under Geosciences) and environmental biology (under Biological Sciences).

Currently, materials research is one of five divisions under the Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) directorate. The other divisions are astronomical sciences, chemistry, mathematical sciences, and physics. (The Office of Multidisciplinary Activities works in partnership with the five MPS divisions to facilitate and support opportunities that cross traditional disciplinary boundaries.)

To elevate or not to elevate

The expert review panel was one of NSF’s “committees of visitors” (COV), that is, a panel formed periodically by NSF to review divisions’ grantmaking procedures. At an MPS advisory committee meeting on October 23, the COV chair, Cornell University professor Melissa Hines, stressed that the proposal was meant to “increase funding for everyone” and not to siphon funding from other MPS divisions.

While the head of the MPS directorate, Anne Kinney, acknowledged Hines’ passion, she suggested the same argument could be made for each of the directorate’s other four divisions.

“What I struggle with in terms of that recommendation [is] should we split into five? Or do we do better as a group that does profound fundamental science, where there’s a lot of relations between what the different parts of this group does?” Kinney says, as reported in an FYI article.

Later in the meeting, in a conversation with NSF director France Córdova, Córdova suggested the MPS directorate could benefit from a restructuring but did not endorse the idea of creating a separate materials research directorate. Instead, she encouraged more collaboration across NSF’s divisions and directorates through the “Big Ideas” initiative.

Though materials research will likely stay as an MPS division for now, the idea of elevating materials research to directorate is not new. A 2011 COV report proposed elevating DMR to directorate as well on the grounds it “would provide a better representation of materials related research within NSF and would raise the profile of materials research both nationally and internationally,” and “would permit a better allocation of resources within NSF towards materials related fields.”

A 2014 follow-up to the 2011 report ultimately concluded such a reorganization would be “too difficult to achieve.”