The US National Science Foundation (NSF) should expand its investment in novel instrumentation that could serve a large number of researchers, according to an advisory report on materials science released yesterday.
The Materials 2022 subcommittee was convened after a separate report on the NSF’s Division of Materials Research (DMR) raised concerns about whether the division was neglecting investment in mid-size facilities, defined in the most recent report as requiring an initial outlay between US$500,000 and $5 million. Roger Falcone, a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, who co-chaired the Materials 2022 subcommittee, gives as examples nuclear magnetic resonance machines and cutting-edge electron microscopes, both of which could be used by researchers in multiple disciplines, from condensed-matter physics to biology. “It is very clear when an individual investigator needs small instrumentation. Major institutions receive funds from the foundation as a whole. What seems to suffer are things in the middle,” says Falcone.
The good news, he adds, is that there may be a way to change that: “We found out the community was enthusiastic about paying user fees for instruments if experts were available to help use it.” This would be different from the model at some major national user facilities funded by the DMR, where researchers compete for time on the machines but get it for free if their research proposals are selected. One model also praised by the report is the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network, a network of 14 centres providing specialized nanoscience tools to all disciplines.
Ian Robertson, the director of the NSF DMR, says that he’s still digesting the report, but that it should be useful in planning for the 2014 presidential budget request to Congress. Users of the DMR’s largest facilities have been raising concerns about budget cuts since 2011, although Robertson says he feels that the division as a whole has done quite well with a flat budget in 2012.
**Updated 4.57 p.m. to reflect that Ian Robertson intended his remark about a flat budget to apply to 2012, not 2013. The NSF’s 2013 budget request for the DMR asks for a slight increase.