Chapter 1: ERC Program Origins

1-A The Historical Context

The National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) Engineering Research Centers (ERC) Program has transformed engineering research and education and has served as a vital catalyst in U.S. technological innovation during the last 30-plus years. Indeed, it is widely considered to be among the most prominent, long-running, and successful initiatives ever undertaken by the Foundation in its nearly 70-year history. The program began in 1984 but had its roots much earlier, at the beginning of organized policies guiding federal government sponsorship of scientific and technological research in the post-World War II era and leading to the establishment of NSF.

1-A(a) Vannevar Bush’s Science: The Endless Frontier

Vannevar Bush was an engineer, inventor, and science administrator who, perhaps more than any single individual, laid the groundwork for American preeminence in science in the second half of the 20th century. Before World War II he was an electrical engineering professor at MIT and later Dean of Engineering there, who founded the company now known as Raytheon and developed early prototypes of computers. During the war he headed the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), through which almost all wartime military R&D was carried out, including the initiation and early administration of the Manhattan Project. In those years Bush became an influential policy adviser and was, in effect, the first formal presidential science adviser (to President Roosevelt). After the war his influence continued and was amplified by the publication in July 1945 of his groundbreaking report to the President, Science, The Endless Frontier. 1

In this book-length report, Bush maintained that basic research is “the pacemaker of technological progress.” “New products and new processes do not appear full-grown,” he wrote. “They are founded on new principles and new conceptions, which in turn are painstakingly developed by research in the purest realms of science!” Arguing that scientific progress would be crucial in the postwar world to ensure the nation’s health, welfare, and especially security, he advocated for broad federal support of university research and education in basic science. Bush declared that “Our national preeminence in the fields of applied research and technology should not blind us to the truth that, with respect to pure research—the discovery of fundamental new knowledge and basic scientific principles—America has occupied a secondary place” based largely on basic science discoveries made in 19th-century Europe. He therefore proposed the creation of a national science foundation to expand basic research and education in science.

Thus, although he was a prominent engineer, Bush’s main thrust was to place more emphasis on basic science as the necessary underpinning of technological advancement. This emphasis set the tone for federal support of science and technology (S&T) that would prevail for the next several decades and would reverberate throughout the halls of the future NSF.

1-A(b) The NSF Organic Act of 1950

During the immediate postwar period, with Bush’s Science as a backdrop, an ideological tug-of-war developed in Congress over how to fund academic S&T research—and specifically, over the balance between basic science and more applied research. Senators Harley Kilgore, an engineer, and Warren Magnuson put forward competing bills that would provide for the appointment of a single science administrator by the President, with emphasis on applied research (Kilgore) or that would vest control in a panel of top scientists and civilian administrators, with the executive director appointed by that body (Magnuson, following the model preferred by Bush).

Debate continued over whether the new agency should be named the national science foundation or the national science and engineering foundation. Finally, in February 1947 a Senate bill was introduced to create a National Science Foundation to replace the OSRD. This bill favored most of the features advocated by Bush, including the administration of the agency by an autonomous scientific board. The bill passed the Senate and the House, but was vetoed by President Truman on the grounds that the administrators were not sufficiently responsible to either the President or Congress. Compromise legislation to create the National Science Foundation, with a director appointed by the President, finally passed through Congress and was signed into law by Truman in 1950.

The NSF Organic Act charged the Foundation “To promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense.” More specifically, in section 3(a), “The Foundation is authorized and directed:

  1. to develop and encourage the pursuit of a national policy for the promotion of basic research and education in the sciences;
  2. to initiate and support basic scientific research in the mathematical, physical, medical, biological, engineering, and other sciences, by making contracts or other arrangements (including grants, loans, and other forms of assistance) for the conduct of such basic scientific research and to appraise the impact of research upon industrial development and upon the general welfare;”2

Even though engineering is included in the Act and there is a mandate to impact industry and the general welfare through research, the contention between basic science research and applied research was reflected in what continued as a long history of ambivalence regarding the nature of “engineering science” research and research aimed explicitly at addressing national problems: Should academic engineering be a highly analytic basic-research endeavor (engineering science); or, building on a strong engineering science base, should it also have an applied, technology-development dimension? 3

1-A(c) Basic Science vs. Engineering vs. Applied Research

From the start, the culture in NSF and its governing National Science Board (NSB) reflected a strong bias toward the scientific research paradigm—exploration of natural phenomena for greater understanding—and did not embrace the engineering paradigm of exploration and control of natural phenomena to advance technology and address societal problems. The tension between the two paradigms greatly impacted the development of the Foundation, its mission, and in particular the role and status of engineering in NSF and academe. This tension had a direct impact on why the Engineering Research Centers Program was formed and how it was managed, and it did not come fully into balance until after the Program was established. 4

The science paradigm was infused in the structure of the Foundation; its culture was a science-first culture. At the same time, there was an “early-developing undercurrent of uneasiness among engineers that their citizenship in the NSF was not quite first class.”5 Engineering research programs and program directors with degrees in engineering were assigned to the science divisions of NSF—particularly the Division of Mathematics, Physical Science and Engineering (MPE)—throughout the 1950s and 1960s and the financial commitment to engineering research was weak.

During this period the emphasis was on building the needed science base underpinning engineering. Co-locating engineers with physical scientists at NSF achieved that shift, but at a cost: i.e., the loss of recognition of the importance of design, systems, experimentation in the advancement of technology, and processing and manufacturing. The engineering mindset tended to be viewed askance, and proposals to NSF that were relevant to practical problems were rejected. Instead, proposals exploring “underlying facts and laws”—what has more recently become referred to as “’engineering first principles’, not directly applicable to practical solutions that the engineer needed to investigate before considering specific human needs”—were funded.6 The resistance arose largely from a strong concern among the non-engineers that “if engineering linked with problem-solving, especially beyond its most fundamental aspects, won additional support and organizational latitude, could NSF’s basic-science mission be sustained?”7

The launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in October 1957, the first man-made satellite in space, undermined America’s sense of scientific and technological supremacy and sent ripple effects throughout the country and NSF. As a consequence, the NSF budget nearly tripled in one year from $40M in FY58 to $134M in FY59.8 At the same time, the public upwelling of fear at the apparent loss of U.S. technological leadership that Sputnik engendered resulted in pressures to increase the number of engineers. Across the country, high school students (mainly boys) were exhorted to become engineers and those boys who excelled at mathematics were mentored and encouraged to apply to engineering schools.


“When I was a program director at NSF I witnessed first-hand the second-hand status of the engineers. There was a very uneven split of funding of engineering versus the sciences. I believe this was due to the NSF leadership being dominated by physicists who thought that NSF was for advancing science and that engineering was not science. It got to the point that during my time at NSF there were even discussions of splitting engineering away from NSF and forming a National Engineering Foundation. Needless to say, this never happened, as the physicists realized that when funding was argued before Congress, it was the engineering disciplines that provided a disproportionate share of the examples of progress made through NSF funding.”

– Randolph Hatch

Program Director, Chemical Processes, National Science Foundation, 1977-1978, rotating NSF staff from the University of Maryland, College of Engineering.


The Space Age culture that arose after Sputnik began to impact NSF, stimulating “basic research on the frontiers of technology, seeking understanding of fundamental phenomena and complex systems to guide new directions in engineering design”, such as heat transfer issues relevant to drag and heating of space vehicles moving through low-density atmospheres at hypersonic speeds.”9Other growing areas of interest were in the nascent fields of enzyme engineering,10 biomedical engineering, engineering structures to be more resilient in the face of earthquakes, and logic and modeling of communications and computing devices.

Even though there was considerable agitation for a greater commitment to engineering in its own right throughout the 1950s and 1960s, it did not attain separate division status until 1964. Eric A. Walker, a Harvard-educated engineer and President of Pennsylvania State University from 1956 to 1970, provided the leadership needed to ensure there was funding for engineering research from the early days of NSF. Appointed to the NSB in 1960, he moved aggressively to raise the stature of engineering and personally propelled engineering forward at NSF for two decades, until a Directorate for Engineering was finally established in 1981. Carl Hall, the Acting Assistant Director for Engineering during the 1980s, worked with Walker to establish the directorate and remembered him remarking that his covert threat to mount a campaign to “set up a new foundation just for engineering” had been effective.11

1-A(d) Global Competition: U.S. Industry’s Leadership Is Challenged

In the period after World War II, U.S. economic and technological preeminence was well established. The nation’s homeland had not been ravaged; instead, its industries had been tremendously stimulated by the mass production of arms, vehicles, and equipment of all kinds. Its rich natural resources were being harnessed on an unprecedented scale. And the GI Bill had sent millions of returning veterans to college, where many received a technical education. As Vannevar Bush had noted, our national preeminence in the fields of applied research and technology, combined with a “can-do” commitment to progress and commerce, gave the U.S. a 30-year head start on the rest of the postwar industrialized world and cemented its leadership in the American Century.

By the late 1970s and early 1980s however, that seeming monopoly in manufacturing and in advanced technology was being threatened—by Japan in automotive and robotics manufacturing in particular, and by Germany, France, and other European countries in microelectronics, computers, new materials, aerospace, and other important fields. Congress, the White House, and every technologically oriented federal agency such as NSF began to take notice. In the early 1980s the National Academies of Sciences and of Engineering, through their National Research Council, began issuing report after report sounding the alarm. An example:

The nation’s capacity for technological innovation became especially apparent in the 20 years following the Second World War, when the United States was acknowledged worldwide as possessing across-the-board technological superiority. Throughout the postwar decades, however, the major industrialized allies combined their recovery from wartime destruction with a rapid rate of technological progress. The result was a progressive narrowing of American technological leadership. While the United States continued to maintain a higher overall productivity level, Europe and Japan enjoyed far higher rates of productivity growth. Today, the allies vie for positions at economic and technological frontiers that at one time seemed reserved for the United States.12

NSF leadership recognized these pressures and began seeking ways to respond. The allocation of programs, personnel, and funding for engineering at NSF was reshuffled several times in the 1970s and early 1980s, sometimes in rapid succession. However, there were basic aspects of the ways that engineering research and education were structured, both at NSF and in academe, that presented barriers to effectively addressing the competitiveness challenge.

1-A(e) Academic Engineering by the ‘80s: More Science, Less Engineering

Perhaps the most fundamental of these barriers was the organization of engineering schools and, correspondingly, NSF, along the traditional disciplinary lines of civil, mechanical, chemical, and electrical engineering. While it was (and still is) important to continually build the science base for engineering, as time went by—due in part to NSF funding patterns—academic engineering research had become increasingly “academic” and disciplinary-based in the mode of science, focused on underlying scientific principles and mathematical modeling and analysis, and less on design, the advancement of technology, and manufacturing—critical skills needed to strengthen the role of engineering in industry to advance the productivity of the economy. Engineering faculty seemed to want to be seen as more akin to theoretical physicists than as nuts-and-bolts builders of things. As a result, engineering students were, increasingly, being trained as pure scientists rather than as engineers.

This imbalance had arisen in the tension described earlier between basic engineering science and applied research. As early as the 1970s, the pendulum began to swing back toward a greater emphasis on the end goal of engineering, which is to contribute to national economic competitiveness and meet pressing societal needs. But there was considerable resistance to that change.

In part the resistance was based on the fact that applied research focused on producing engineered systems requires interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary interactions that were no longer encouraged or even supported by the prevailing funding patterns, and thus by engineering administrators in academe. In part it was also rooted in the lower funding that engineering had been receiving through NSF—experimentation (in contrast to modeling and simulation) is more expensive; and facilities for testing and prototyping are even more costly and in most institutions were non-existent. Major changes were needed in the ways that NSF and academe did business.

1-B NSF Pressed to Address National Needs and Competitiveness of Industry

The pressure for change developed slowly, driven in part by industrial influence on key members of Congress and their committees, as well as by a handful of influential engineering leaders in the NSF hierarchy. As it developed, it met with considerable resistance—even open hostility, at times—from the scientific and even the engineering establishments.

The first direct attempt to bridge the basic/applied research divide at NSF was the Research Applied to National Needs (RANN) Program. RANN and its successor programs laid the groundwork in NSF and Congress for the establishment of the Directorate for Engineering in 1981 and, ultimately, the Engineering Research Centers Program.

1-B(a) The RANN Experiment

The debate about the nature of engineering as an academic pursuit and the role of the National Science Foundation in funding engineering research, which began in the 1950s, continued during the 1960s. In 1965, Eric Walker, then a member of the National Science Board, testified before Congressman Emilio Q. Daddario’s House Subcommittee on Science, Research, and Development. Cong. Daddario was reviewing NSF’s purposes, history, and statutory authority to assess its performance, future role, and tools need to do the job in the future. Walker testified that: “…engineers regret having settled in the forming days (of NSF) for an agency that fell short of including engineering, both in name and practice. The true nature of engineering is misunderstood. Engineering synthesizes, not analyzes. It uses knowledge (together with money, personnel, and materials) to satisfy human needs, not to accumulate more knowledge. But even theoreticians test their knowledge; why should engineers not be permitted the same right?” He urged Congress to “…reassess the definition of science and engineering and the growing gray areas between them toward the formulation of a fair and productive public policy.”13

This impasse was not directly addressed until the late 1960s, when the mission of NSF was broadened to specifically address research to develop the science base for new technologies. As a result of the Daddario hearings, a new amended charter for NSF was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, “widening the scope of NSF to include research directly affecting society to develop a science base for new and emerging technologies, including engineering, computer development, and social sciences. … The amendment specifically sanctioned applied research in Section 3(c) authorizing the Foundation ‘to initiate and support scientific research, including applied research, at academic and non-profit institutions…including applied scientific research relevant to national problems involving the public interest…or engineering research carried into early phases of application.”14

Leland Haworth, the Director of NSF at the time, remarked in hearings that he had been particularly concerned about graduate engineering education, but that now he was less concerned, as it was “commencing to swing back from a predominant emphasis on engineering sciences, divorced from empirical experience, to a more balanced approach.” He felt that increased emphasis on applied research by engineering graduate students was needed to “develop engineers with greater competence to adapt new scientific knowledge into engineering practice for the welfare of the country.”15

The amended charter of the NSF and these debates within Congress and the NSF paved the way for a new program focused on bringing scientific knowledge to bear on national problems and to build the engineering foundation for new technologies. The first formal attempt to deal with this challenge was a program called Interdisciplinary Research Relevant to Problems of Society (IRRPOS), established in 1970. But funding was minimal and NSF had an ambivalent commitment to the program, magnified by the transfer of program directors to manage the IRRPOS programs, some of whom were not fully committed to its mission. 16 However, IRRPOS was short-lived, as a new and more aggressive model was under development: the Research Applied to National Needs (RANN) Program.

RANN resulted from a convergence of forces, both within and outside of NSF, for the support of research that would lead to an economic and broader societal impact. As early as 1970, when IRRPOS was getting off the ground, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) offered NSF Director William McElroy a $100 million budget increase if the Foundation could design a new program to harness science and technology in the service of national needs. The OMB insisted on a new program, not a reformatted IRRPOS—one that would aggressively seek and support research on societal problems.17 With input from NSF staff and the approval of the NSB, the new RANN Program was proposed to OMB and Congress in the winter of 1971. Congress approved a start-up budget of $34 million and the program was initiated in March 1971, housed in a new Directorate for Research Applications.

Alfred J. Eggers, Jr., was appointed as the Assistant Director for Research Applications and the head of RANN. He and key members of his leadership team came from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Eggers had led the NASA Ames Research Center group that “pioneered hypersonic aerodynamics in the 1950s and enabled the technology for all reentry vehicles. A brilliant theorist, Eggers also validated his ideas by building significant experimental facilities.”18 His key leadership team at NSF was comprised of several members of the NASA Apollo team, including Richard Green, who served as the Deputy Assistant Director (DAD) of RANN.

The budget rose to $59 million in FY 1972. However, RANN too was short-lived and “after allocating a total of $468.3 million and enduring six and a half years of competing external pressures and palpable internal hostility, RANN disappeared by reorganization when Richard Atkinson (then the Director of NSF) announced a new science and engineering applications directorate” in the fall of 1977, called the Directorate for Applied Science and Research Applications (ASRA).19

Richard Green, the former RANN DAD, and Wil Lepkowski, an independent science writer who covered RANN and science policy for Business Week and Chemical and Engineering News, wrote in their 2003 analysis of the origins and demise of RANN that:

“RANN’s purpose was to manage a set of research projects specifically targeted at improving various social, economic, industrial, and intergovernmental sectors of the country: problems in energy, the environment, industrial innovation, urban and rural quality of life, the criminal justice system, medical delivery systems, the management of cities, communication needs across the board, transportation, the country’s infrastructure, analysis of complex policy issues, and quite a bit more.

RANN scanned the terrain in search of existing and emerging problems, assembled them into categories, and asked the research community—academic and industrial—to submit proposals for research on meeting goals that fell under each grouping; goals that the federal mission agencies either missed or lacked the resources to tackle. The program was essentially an idea factory that depended on researchers to embroider those ideas, reshape them, take resulting projects to the proof-of-concept stage, and once they achieved promise, transfer them to industry, a mission agency, or to state or local governments so that they could be put to practical use.

The main problem, however, was that RANN was never able to embed itself in the value system of the basic research establishment itself, much less in the inner structure and mentality of its agency. NSF was founded on the assumption that its sole mission was to support basic research. Accordingly, most of its senior staff resented any encroachment on that sacred trust by anything that reeked of applications. Too much applied research, it was believed, would only crowd out university funding for basic research, felt to be eternally in short supply, and do little more than water down academic excellence.” 20

However, by the time it ended, RANN’s influence—if not the program itself—was already embedded in the culture of NSF. Applied research directed at industrial and national needs was then permanently in the bloodstream of NSF, and at the right moment in NSF’s history. Wil Lepkowski put it even more succinctly in the 1980s, “Even the staunchest of NSF’s governing body will have to admit that, but for RANN, NSF would not be the billion-dollar agency it is today.”21

A crucial aspect of this continuing influence—recognizing the need to extend engineering support beyond fundamental principles—was the people within RANN who continued to work at NSF. In particular, RANN produced the first two managers of the Engineering Research Centers Program: Lewis G. (“Pete”) Mayfield, a chemical engineer who was a RANN Division Director; and Lynn Preston, an economist, who was a RANN Program Director. Mayfield came to the Foundation in the 1960s from Montana State University. While in the basic engineering science divisions of NSF, he served as the Director of the Chemical Engineering programs in MPE and spawned a new field at the cusp of chemical engineering and biology—which he called enzyme engineering, and which later became the interdisciplinary field of bioengineering. In RANN, he was the Director of the Division for Advanced Technology, where he supported research to continue to advance the field and later in ASRA, where he led a group that explored new fields of engineering.

Preston came to NSF in 1972 from the Institute for Defense Analyses, where she had been developing an early generation of macroeconomic model. She initially funded a program to assess the effectiveness of public service delivery programs. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, at the request of Congress she developed a program for NSF to address the challenges of small, environmentally friendly technologies and a broader-based effort, also at the request of Congress, to develop a program to bring a broad range of fields together to explore opportunities for new technology to aid the disabled. Later in ASRA, as the Deputy Director of the Office of Interdisciplinary Research in the Directorate for Engineering in the early 1980s, she developed the first cross-directorate program announcement in biotechnology. (See Section 2-B, Staffing Up.)

For a more detailed analysis of the challenges the RANN program faced at NSF, how it addressed them, and the lessons that were learned relevant to “breaking the ice” with problem-focused, interdisciplinary applied research in a culture steeped in the traditions of basic research focused on established disciplines, see the “Lessons Learned in RANN.

1-B(b) Subsequent Efforts to Fund Research Driven by National/Industrial Needs

Between the mid-1970s and the establishment of a Directorate for Engineering in 1981, engineering at NSF in those few years resided in four different places. As RANN was winding down in 1976, and with the distinctions between RANN and the Engineering Division of the MPE Directorate becoming increasingly blurred, Director Richard Atkinson formed a Task Force on Engineering and Research Applications. The task force recommended the establishment of an Engineering and Research Applications Directorate, linked to RANN. But there was weak support in the engineering community for a connection with what was by then a failing program, so Atkinson did not follow this recommendation. Instead, later that year he appointed a special “science applications” task force to take a broader look at how to connect basic research with the solution of national problems. This group was tasked with examining “the nature, content, direction, and coupling of all NSF science and applications programs,” especially RANN and Engineering.22

Reporting in July 1977, the second task force supported NSF’s role in applied research and research applications, as well as interdisciplinary research, but they thought that research applications (meaning RANN) needed “structural coordination” with the rest of NSF, along with other changes.

Accordingly, a month later Director Atkinson proposed a new directorate “by which NSF applications programs could be coordinated and integrated with the research directorates’ basic and applied efforts.”23 It would be called Science and Engineering Applications (SEA)—but was later retitled Applied Science and Research Applications (ASRA). When ASRA became effective in February 1978, RANN officially ended. ASRA was seen as focusing more on future societal needs than RANN had done. It incorporated most of the “applied” end of engineering supported by NSF, such as the Weather Modification Program and the Earthquake Hazard Mitigation Program; the more basic engineering science programs remained in MPE’s Division of Engineering.

Jack Sanderson, a physicist, was named Assistant Director of ASRA. NSF Director Atkinson, who had moved to shut down RANN, was now more sanguine about the prospects for applied research to amplify the value of NSF’s basic research, without distracting from it—and even proposed doubling ASRA’s budget above its FY78 level.24 But ASRA was still an uneasy fit within NSF, and engineers both at NSF and in academe had trouble identifying with it, especially the part of NSF’s engineering contingent still “marooned” in the directorate primarily devoted to mathematics and physical sciences.25

This period has been summarized by Dian Belanger in her history of engineering at NSF, as follows:

“A dominant and pervasive theme of philosophical differences accompanied the NSF organizational and funding parade over its life-time. Often referred to as a debate between basic and applied research, the issue is more usefully addressed in terms of scientific and engineering research. NSF’s mission, said Vannevar Bush, was to promote and support basic scientific research, and founders agreed that included research on fundamental engineering principles, called engineering science, but not the applications of engineering to real-world problem solving. Engineering leaders, then striving to ground their profession in long-advocated scientific and mathematical rigor, approved that arrangement but eventually found the rigid mold confining and uncomfortable when even the hot pursuit of practical leads from basic research was denied. The Daddario Amendments and the subsequent RANN era provided an opportunity for new directions and emphases, but the rewritten charter, with its inclusion of applied research and problem solving, was too radical a departure for much of the NSF community, which was, at best, inadequately prepared for it. Because so much of RANN was labeled engineering, the program’s eventual unpopularity sullied engineering by association. So it was not surprising that it then took several more false starts before NSF could accommodate engineering philosophically and structurally.”26

1-B(c) A Directorate for Engineering Is Established

Consequently, in 1979 a new Directorate for Engineering and Applied Science (EAS) was formed to replace ASRA and also incorporate MPE’s Division of Engineering. This reorganization gave engineering, for the first time, a unified home in NSF—one with the word “engineering” in its title. Jack Sanderson was again named as AD. But the Applied Science portion of EAS—essentially the remnants of RANN—were given short shrift within the new directorate.27

It was around this time, from 1979 into the early ‘80s, that concerns about U.S. global economic competitiveness began intensifying. These concerns led to pressure from Congress and industry in particular to give engineering even greater status and visibility within NSF. George Brown, chair of the House Subcommittee on Science, Research, and Technology, held a series of town-hall-style meetings that culminated in draft legislation to create a National Technology Foundation (NTF), which would subsume not only the new EAS Directorate but also many other federal civilian programs devoted to technology development.

NSF’s reaction to this proposal was predictably alarmed. Director Atkinson quickly initiated a drive within NSF to find a way to strengthen engineering’s visibility, funding, and linkages with science programs, with a view to meeting the competitiveness challenge—whatever it took, in other words, to deflect the prospect of an NTF that would carve away a significant part of NSF.

In the midst of this upheaval, Atkinson left NSF and was replaced by an acting director until the arrival in the fall of 1980 of John Slaughter, an electrical engineer and Provost from Washington State University, who had previously served as Assistant Director of the Astronomical, Atmospheric, Earth and Ocean Sciences Directorate.

Throughout 1980, the NSB went to work on crafting a justification for creating a new Directorate for Engineering that would at last put engineering on an equal footing with the long-dominant sciences. They found that “engineering, or engineering science, was fully compatible with other basic sciences with similar paradigms, reviewing procedures, refereeing procedures, [and] publications.”28 The outgoing Atkinson agreed with this idea, supported by key advisers like NSB Chair Lewis Branscomb, a physicist.

While discussion continued at a level of vigor that Science described in September 1980 as “assuming the scale of a major science policy issue,”29 that summer the task of proposing an organization for the new directorate fell to Judith Coakley, Director of the EAS Problem Analysis Group, and Lynn Preston, her Deputy. While there were divisions for Computer Science and Engineering and Materials Engineering, the other divisions followed the traditional disciplinary lines.

All of the divisions would be charged with covering the spectrum of research from fundamental through applied engineering to technology transfer to industry. To address cross-disciplinary and problem-focused research (of the kind formerly supported in RANN), a new Office of Interdisciplinary Research was to be created in the Engineering Directorate. Applied research—and debate continued to rage as to exactly what this term meant—would be distributed back into the research directorates.

The new Engineering Directorate was officially established on March 8, 1981, with Sanderson again as AD. In the end, the strongest imperative once again seemed to be that of national needs: in this case, strengthening U.S. industrial competitiveness.

1-B(d) The ERC Program Is Initiated in 1984

i. The Lead-up

There is a prevailing “myth” that the ERC Program sprang de novo from a conversation at the White House among Dr. George Keyworth, the Science Advisor to President Ronald Reagan, and a small group from academe, industry, and NSF.30 A more accurate recounting of the growing momentum that led to the ERC Program builds on the history of attempts to deal with the weak role of engineering in NSF over time, described in the previous section. It then culminates in an iterative process between NSF, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), and the White House, with input from industry and academe, that played out over the course of several months in 1983.

During 1983, through several initiatives and meetings the NSF staff and the White House attempted to address the pressure from industry and Congress to increase the role of engineering in NSF. In the process, they created the core concepts for the Engineering Research Centers Program.

John Slaughter’s tenure as NSF Director lasted only two years. He had been appointed by President Jimmy Carter. President Reagan, a Republican, wished to reduce the size of the federal government and targeted federally funded education programs in particular, including those at NSF. Partly as a result of this pressure, Slaughter stepped down. He was succeeded by Edward A. Knapp in November 1982. In early 1983, Director Knapp met with George Keyworth to discuss the course and direction of NSF programs, in particular their joint concern that the NSF’s engineering research and education programs were not meeting the nation’s needs.31 They agreed that NSF should try to find ways to strengthen engineering at NSF.

Soon after, Dr. Knapp asked Dr. Robert M. White, President of the NAE, to provide his views of the Foundations’ engineering programs. The response, in July, indicated that NSF’s programs had become increasingly analytical and decreasingly experimental, thereby shortchanging engineering students by not preparing them sufficiently for engineering practice in industry.32 In August 1983, Dr. Jack Sanderson, the AD for Engineering, asked Dr. Carl Hall, the Deputy AD for Engineering, and Coakley and Preston who now led the Office of Interdisciplinary Research, to again scope out a new initiative in engineering for NSF. This was to be a $175 million initiative that included multidisciplinary engineering research and education, and which also included centers for a total of $21M.

That initiative was not funded but served as a catalyst for the NSB that same month to request that Dr. Knapp “expand and alter” the role of engineering in NSF. By October 1983, Dr. Hall was serving as the Acting AD for ENG after the departure of Dr. Sanderson from NSF for a new role in industry. Hall prepared another initiative, which was primarily focused on research instrumentation to enable more experimentation with technology and engineering processes. OMB recommended this initiative for funding at $10M, but it was solely focused on experimental equipment and did not mention centers or education per se.

ii. A Fateful Meeting

It was beginning to look as though the concept of joining faculty and industry in centers (soon to be a component of the original ERC concept) was dead. However, just at that time an NAE Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP) research briefing paper on Computers in Design and Manufacturing was being prepared for Dr. Keyworth and it proved to be the catalyst that sparked the ERC Program.33 The basic findings of the paper were that the need for automated manufacturing systems integration was a barrier that hindered effective industrial production and that these concepts were not taught in academic engineering programs because of a lack of interdisciplinary knowledge and the cost and scale of instrumentation and equipment required.

Keyworth met with the COSEPUP chairman, Dr. George M. Low, President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and a former Administrator of NASA; Dr. Solomon Buchsbaum of Bell Labs; two members of the NSF research program management staff, Drs. Richard Nicholson and Edward Hayes; along with Dr. Joseph Morone of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and several others on Saturday morning, October 29, 1983. The purpose of the meeting was to review the COSEPUP briefing and NSF’s engineering support programs.34

During that meeting, President Low described a center at RPI where research to build a glider using computer-aided design was carried out jointly with industry, faculty, and students. Through the process, there was a strong exchange of perspectives on research and issues of systems integration naturally arose. Students and faculty learned to integrate knowledge across disciplines and to work in teams because the driving force was the technology. Dr. Low catalyzed a shared vision of the kind of engineering education that is needed if this type of integration were to be achieved in universities and in industry.35 (The RPI center was one of several funded during the RANN program to experiment with and improve university/industry collaboration in research through centers.)

Soon after, Dr. Keyworth met with Dr. Knapp and directed NSF to develop “broad and flexible” engineering centers. NSB chair Lewis Branscomb was briefed on the concept and was enthusiastic. On December 13, 1983, Dr. Knapp asked Dr. Robert White for the NAE’s help in “developing these engineering centers” and scoping out their mission and operational characteristics.

A committee was formed at the Academy that included personnel from industry and academe. Dr. W. Dale Compton, Vice President of Research at Ford Motor Company, was the chair. The panel included Dr. Eric Bloch from IBM, who later became the Director of NSF, and Professor Nam Suh from MIT, who led one of the first experimental university/industry cooperative research centers (on polymer manufacturing), funded by the RANN program. The NAE delivered the report, entitled Guidelines for Engineering Research Centers,36 to NSF in record time on February 15, 1984.

  1. NAE Guidelines: A Blueprint for Culture Change

Panel chairman Compton, in his preface to the report, said that the following themes recurred during three days of intense panel discussions of the Centers concept:

(1) the relationships with industry must be real and must be perceived by both sides, the faculty and the students of the Centers and the engineers and management of the participating companies, as mutually beneficial and as dealing with problems which are industrially important and intellectually demanding;

(2) the Centers are experimental, will take time to grow, and will inevitably require altering protocols and programs;

(3) to have an impact, the program must be a significant one, meaning that it is better to have fewer Centers with sufficient funding rather than many with inadequate funding; and

(4) the Centers must complement and not supplant, either in size or numbers, the Foundation’s grants to individual investigators.

NAE suggested that the Foundation make a five-year initial commitment, with a detailed site review after three years, and that the annual funding level be in the range of $2.5 million to $5.0 million for each Center, including an allowance of $1 million to $2 million per year for equipment and supplies. Allowances for student stipends and partial tuition would drive the total higher.37

1-B(e) 1985: New NSF Leadership Focuses on Research as a Platform for Competitiveness

Energized by this commitment to finally address the shortcomings in engineering research and education programs at NSF and in academe that were hampering U.S. industrial competitiveness, NSF got immediately to work on developing program goals and features that reflected these guidelines, building a program staff, and putting out a call for proposals. These activities, taking place throughout the remainder of 1984 and into 1985, will be described in Chapter 2. In the meantime, however, NSF as a whole was undergoing a reorganization that paralleled the new ERC Program’s focus on research as a vehicle for meeting national needs and strengthening competitiveness.

The key was the arrival, in fall 1984, of two strong-minded individuals, both engineers, who would lead NSF and the Engineering Directorate in a bold new direction. Mr. Erich Bloch, a highly accomplished project manager at IBM, credited with developing IBM’s first transistorized supercomputer, 7030 Stretch, and key components of its first mainframe computer, System/360, was appointed by President Reagan as the first Director to come to NSF from industry and the first not to have a Ph.D.

Bloch, who arrived in September, was soon seen as a transformative director, one characterized by Science as an “adept politician and a strong advocate for research.” He encouraged funding for high-risk, but potentially revolutionary research. Bloch was controversial, with a personal style more direct and blunt than most at NSF were used to; but he made the improvement of U.S. economic competitiveness a major agenda item of the NSF, a goal that dovetailed perfectly with trends and programs already afoot at NSF upon his arrival.

Also in September 1984, President Reagan announced the nomination of Dr. Nam P. Suh, Director of the Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity at MIT, to be Assistant Director for Engineering at NSF—the first engineer to be ENG AD. Dr. Suh’s appointment was confirmed in October. Shortly after arriving at NSF, he outlined a new plan for Engineering at NSF that would: (1) maintain strength in established engineering fields; (2) focus resources on developing engineering knowledge bases in design, manufacturing, and computer engineering; (3) provide increased opportunities for joint research efforts between industry and universities; (4) stimulate research on engineering systems; (5) fully implement the Engineering Research Centers concept; (6) anticipate future needs of the country and help the U.S. engineering community come to agreement on research and major instrumentation priorities that will help meet these needs; (7) steer NSF engineering on a course that avoids unnecessary overlaps with mission agencies, that concentrates on the development of fundamental knowledge, and that advances U.S. engineering capabilities through knowledge generated at home and overseas; and (8) codify the new knowledge gained and make it accessible to the U.S. engineering community.

These aims signaled a full-court press on ensuring that U.S. engineering schools produced research results and graduates that would maintain and strengthen U.S. industrial leadership globally across the board technologically. With the full approval of Director Bloch, by January 1985 Suh had managed a wholesale reorganization of the Engineering Directorate. He abolished the four existing engineering Divisions and the Office of Interdisciplinary Research, establishing five new divisions and an Office of Cross-Disciplinary Research (OCDR) in their place.

In accordance with the plan he had outlined just three months earlier, three of the new divisions were devoted to strengthening fundamental research in established engineering fields. A fourth division was concerned with developing engineering science bases in design, manufacturing, and computer engineering. The fifth division focused research on emerging and critical engineering systems or technologies—areas where new knowledge could contribute to efforts to improve the international competitiveness of U.S. industry over the long term. The OCDR was assigned responsibility for the recently established ERC program. In addition, the Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers Program was transferred to OCDR to operate side-by-side with the ERC Program, since each focused on a different place in the spectrum of industry R&D funding; and the small business innovation research program was transferred to OCDR as well. 38

In the words of Syl McNinch, an NSF chronicler of that time: “In January 1985, the goals and objectives of the National Science Foundation’s Engineering activity were expanded and NSF took a more active stance in the support of engineering research and related activities.” That same month, newly arrived Director Bloch said, “I believe the new NSF engineering organizational structure will give us the ability to move forward with highly leveraged programs that take advantage of the capability of academic institutions, industry, and other Federal agency resources and will permit NSF to meet more fully its legislative mandate to maintain the health of fundamental engineering research and engineering education in the United States.” 39

The Engineering Research Centers Program was off to an auspicious start.


1 Bush, Vannevar (1945). Science—The Endless Frontier: A Report to the President on a Program of Postwar Scientific Research. Washington, DC: OSRD. []

2 Public Law 81-507, chapter 171-2D. On the web,

3 For an excellent history of the role of engineering in the development of the Foundation, see Belanger, Diane Olson (1998). Enabling American Innovation: Engineering and the National Science Foundation. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, Chapters 1-6.

4 Erich Bloch (2010). Address to the NSF 60th Anniversary at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Meeting, “NSF and National Research Priorities.” Washington, DC: AAAS.

5 Belanger, op. cit., page 43.

6 Ibid., page 40.

7 Ibid., page 58.

8 Mazuzan, George (1994). The National Science Foundation: A Brief History, Ch. III: From Sputnik Through the Golden Age, 1957-1968. Washington, DC: National Science Foundation. []

9 Ibid, page 50.

10 Lewis (Pete) Mayfield, Director of Chemical Engineering Programs in the MPE Division, promoted this new interdisciplinary field at the cusp of chemical engineering and biology. Mayfield was later to become the first leader of the ERC Program.

11 Interview with Dr. Hall conducted by Courtland Lewis and Lynn Preston at NSF, Feb. 3, 2011.

12 National Research Council (1983). International Competition in Advanced Technology: Decisions for America. Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, pg. 2.

13 Belanger,op. cit., pp. 74-75.

14 Ibid., p. 77-78.

15 Ibid., p. 80.

16 Ibid., p. 90-93.

17 Ibid., p. 94.

18 National Academy of Engineering (2011). Memorial Tributes, Volume 15: Alfred John Eggers, Jr., 1922-2006. Washington DC: National Academy Press; or online at

19 Belanger, op. cit., p. 121. For a comprehensive history of the establishment and dissolution of the RANN program, see pages 94-121.

20 Green, Richard J., and Wil Lepkowski (Winter 2006). A forgotten model for purposeful science. Issues in Science and Technology, 22(2), 2.

21 Belanger, op. cit., p. 105.

22 Ibid. p. 128

23 Ibid., p. 130.

24 Ibid., p. 135.

25 It is interesting to note that when Atkinson left the Foundation to become the Chancellor of the then-new University of California at San Diego, he took the opportunity to structure it as a very interdisciplinary university with problem-focused areas of concentration, like the environment, and to align the faculty with users of their research. See, for example,

26 Ibid. pp. 265-266.

27 Ibid., p. 137.

28 Ibid., p. 144.

29 Young, Leo (1980). Science and engineering. Science, 2094464), September 26, 1980.

30 McNinch, Syl (1985). Engineering an Expanded and More Active Role for NSF. NSF Report No. 85-x. Washington, DC: National Science Foundation. February 4, 1985, p. 3.

31 McNinch, Syl (1984). National Science Foundation Engineering Research Centers (ERC)—How They Happened, Their Purpose, and Comments on Related Programs. Report prepared for Dr. Carl Hall, Acting Assistant Director for Engineering, September 14, 1984. p. 1.

32 National Academy of Engineering (1983). Strengthening Engineering in the National Science Foundation—A View from the President of the National Academy of Engineering. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

33 National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine (1983). Research Briefings 1983. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. []

34 McNinch (1984), op. cit., p. 5.

35 Several accounts of this meeting have been written and two were sourced for this chapter: McNinch (1984), p. 5; and the Introduction to an NAE document on centers: National Research Council (1986). The New Engineering Research Centers—Purposes, Goals, and Expectations. Report of theCross-Disciplinary Research Committee. National Research Council. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. p. vi.

36 National Academy of Engineering (1984). Guidelines for Engineering Research Centers: A Report to the National Science Foundation. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. []

37 McNinch (1984), op. cit., p. 6.

38 McNinch (1985), op. cit., p. 5.

39 Ibid., preface.