Chapter 12: Perspectives & Lessons Learned

12-A    Motivation

The Engineering Research Centers Program is a government/industry/academic partnership designed to respond to the challenge to strengthen the role of engineers as the engines of innovation. U.S. economic and technological preeminence was on the rise after World War II. 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 leadership in manufacturing and 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 (NAE), 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.[1]

That challenge led to the creation of the NSF Engineering Research Centers Program (ERC) in 1984, at the behest of the NAE and the Congress. The goal was to stimulate a reform in academic engineering research and education. The intent was to broaden the typical academic engineering culture beyond the necessary research in fundamentals to include research and proof-of-concept exploration in academic scale testbeds, all in partnership with industry. The importance of the partnerships with industry cannot be understated. Industry was frustrated by how long it took new engineering graduates to understand industrial practice and technological innovation. In academic engineering programs, there was a strong emphasis on modelling at the expense of hands on applications and experimentation in “making” things. Apart from chemical engineering, industrial engineering, and systems engineering, most engineering disciplines lacked a systems perspective on technology. Students were trained to develop technology in a piecemeal fashion devoid of understanding of how parts, devices and components were to be eventually integrated into a technological system. Students needed to understand how to work in teams, integrating knowledge across engineering and science disciplines, driven by the constraints and opportunities offered by developing new technologies.

When the ERC Program began at NSF, there was a serious disconnect between academe and industry—i.e., between what academe produced and what the nation’s industries needed. At the graduate level, universities were increasingly producing “engineering scientists” in the mold of physicists and chemists, people who were best prepared to be faculty members. Undergraduate education had a strong “engineering science” bias and generally did not produce people who understood engineering systems or how to make things in industry. Also, in the early 1980s American companies were losing their economic dominance to foreign competitors. We excelled in scientific discovery but had difficulty in converting basic knowledge to competitive products. The ERC Program was established to counter this status quo.
Dr. Stephen Director, Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, Northeastern University (retired)  

12-B    Delivering on the Challenge

The ERC Program began operation in 1984 and established its first Class of six ERCs in 1985. By 2014, 64 ERCs had been awarded that were designed to address those challenges and create a new culture in academic engineering. Underpinning this major investment in ERCs the Program put in place management and performance oversight systems designed to strengthen performance and weed out those centers that couldn’t effectively deliver on their visions. The Program also established a collaborative community across the centers devoted to strengthening their own performance and the ERC Program as a whole. 

12-B(a) Defining and Honing the ERC Construct and its Key Features to Structure ERCs for Delivering

Before a solicitation could be released, the Program had to carefully define a set of key features derived from the broad goals in the NAE guidelines. These features are necessary to closely focus the efforts of ERCs on clearly defined goals and objectives. The core features have remained largely intact but grew over time to include societal goals such as outreach, pre-college education, and diversity. They also changed as more ERCs were put in operation, performance was better defined, and the role of ERCs in innovation vis-à-vis industry evolved. These ERC key features remained until 2015, when a new construct for the ERC Program was defined by NSF.

The following is a synthesis of the key features that defined the first two generations of ERCs (1985-2006):[2]

  • Guiding vision for advances in a complex, next-generation engineered system and a corresponding new generation of engineers in areas critical to U.S. competitiveness in world markets
  • Strategic research plan to realize the vision through research from fundamentals, through enabling technology, to realization in proof-of-concept systems
  • Cross-disciplinary team effort, contributing more to the focus and goals of the Center than would occur with individually funded research projects
  • Partnership with engineers and scientists from industrial and practitioner organizations to focus the activities on current and projected needs, enhance understanding of systems aspects of engineering, and achieve a more effective flow of knowledge into innovation to benefit the Nation
  • Education program focusing on an integrative, systems-oriented environment for students at all levels to prepare them for innovation in practice
  • Programs of outreach to enhance the capacity of the ERC to fulfill its vision in research and education, including pre-college education
  • Leadership, management, and an infrastructure of space and experimental equipment to support the complex goals of an ERC
  • A commitment from the academic, industrial, and other partners to substantially leverage NSF’s funds and sustain the ERC during and after the period of NSF support

12-B(b) Gen-1 and Gen-2: Lessons Learned and Challenges Ahead

The first two generations of ERC were highly productive in terms of delivery of knowledge, technology, and new generations of engineers who were more productive at a faster pace in industry. The ERC Program leadership formed a community designed to partner with industry to strengthen U.S. competitiveness and to partner across ERCs to continuously improve each ERC and the ERC construct. The ERCs built a community of teamwork and collaboration within and across the centers, enabled by the ERC Annual Meetings. This culture, often called the “ERC Family” became a model for community-building for other centers programs, such as the NSF Science and Technology Centers, and the Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers Program.

ERC research programs impacted the broader culture of engineering research. This was achieved by expanding the scope from explorations of basic principles to include more technology-focused research and cross-disciplinary teaming. Systems-driven research remained largely within ERCs and rarely expanded beyond into the broader engineering research culture. ERCs proved that significant input to research areas from industry could enrich the academic research and education culture and contribute to speeding the transfer of new technologies to industry. Academic engineering definitions of the output of research expanded from publications to patents, licenses, and technology innovation. The ERC Program, as a whole, served as a proof-of-concept testbed for university administrators and faculty. This was achieved by demonstrating the feasibility of large-scale collaborative, interdisciplinary research and education, which stimulated host universities to promote interdisciplinary research and education and to reward that type of effort in promotion and tenure practices.

At the same time, the ERC Program was looking ahead to future challenges on the forefront in the 21st Century, such as how to:

  • Prepare graduates for success in a global economy
  • Strategically “design” a graduating ERC engineer to be more innovative
  • Address expanding the role of ERCs in innovation, including the support of translational research in partnership with small R&D firms to speed high-risk/high-payoff emerging technology—crossing the “Valley of Death”
  • Attract diverse cadres of domestic students to the field of engineering, beginning at the pre-college level; and
  • Partner with state and local government organizations devoted to economic development.

These challenges motivated the creation of the third generation of ERCs (2008-2017). The key features of that ERC generation rested on the core features of Gen-2 ERCs expanded to include:

  • Building a culture of innovation in academe
  • Linking scientific discovery to technological innovation by directly engaging small innovative firms in the ERCs’ research teams to carry out translational research to speed innovation
  • Strategically developing education experiences to develop creative, adaptive, and innovative engineers capable of success in a global economy, including formative and summative assessment
  • Forming long-term partnerships with a few middle and high schools to infuse engineering concepts into the classroom with the goal of increasing the enrollment of pre-college students in college-level engineering degree programs
  • Building partnerships with academic, state, and local government programs designed to stimulate entrepreneurship, start-up firms, and otherwise speed the transition of academic knowledge into technological innovation
  • Provide faculty and students with cross-cultural, global research and educational experience through partnerships with foreign universities.

12-C    Innovative Program Management Tools

12-C(a) Performance Oversight

The ERC Program functioned with a culture of accountability for delivery results to achieve its goals to strengthen the U.S. economy and benefit the academic engineering community, industry and the broader society. This accountability was managed by the ERC Program’s post-award oversight system, an innovation in program and center-level performance assessment. The core of the oversight system was on-site performance reviews by peers of the ERCs, managed by ERC Program staff. Over time, the system grew in scope and requirements in order to improve center-level performance, document outcomes and impacts. It included reporting, performance criteria, and data collection. These oversight tools—a first for NSF at the time of the start of the Program in 1985—provided the center directors, their reviewers, and NSF with information to gauge a center’s performance against their goals, the performance of other ERCs in a class, and Program-level goals.

To support this system, standardized reporting guidelines, data collection guidelines, and site visit guidelines were provided to the centers to ensure fairness across the centers. Post-award performance criteria were developed for each stage of development of the centers over 10 years, for years 1-3, 4-6, and 7-10. NSF provided data benchmarks to the centers and the reviewers, from the ERC database, to calibrate performance by performance year and ERC class. They were especially important in the critical third-year and sixth-year renewal reviews, in which ERCs that did not perform well were shut down.

The ERC Program’s post-award oversight system began to have a “ripple effect” throughout the NSF, serving as a standard for new center programs and other large awards and stimulating the NSF to require annual reports from all awardees, not just centers and other large awards. The ERC program led the NSF in post-award reporting, including data, in center-level financial management, and in post-award oversight through peer review.

12-C(b) Innovative Research Management Tools

One of the most significant innovations in research management was the development of the ERC Program’s Strategic Research Planning Framework. What became known as the “3-plane chart” provided a framework for ERC strategic planning of fundamental research, technology research, and systems research in a coordinated and systematic way across all ERCs. This instrument not only served as a planning tool for the ERCs but also made each ERC’s overall research program transparent and understandable to its faculty participants, industrial partners, and NSF alike. It represented a significant shift in the way engineers planned their research portfolios.

The first version released to the ERCs, shown as an example in Figure 12-1, is the ERC 3-plane strategic planning chart of the Center for Neuromorphic Systems Engineering at CalTech.

Figure 12-1:  First Version of ERC 3-Plane Strategic Planning Chart (Depicting Systems Testbed at the CalTech Neuromorphic Systems ERC) (Source: CNSE)

The systems goal for that ERC was a swarm of robotic “noses” capable of detecting a pollutant and swarming to “attack” it. The ERC 3-plane strategic research plan chart has become iconic in the ERC Program and has been characterized as a “novel planning tool to ensure that ERCs envision technology systems that are high-risk, industrially important, and intellectually demanding.”[3] When effectively articulated the chart allows the ERC to communicate its systems-level goals and trace the pathway of system requirements down to the fundamental knowledge required and then up through experimental enabling technology research and testbeds to proof-of-concept explorations in systems-level research and testbeds. The purpose is to guide the research plan and to communicate it more effectively among the team members and with industry and the reviewers. It is designed to be flexible and dynamic over time.

A second key innovation of the ERC Program, added to the third-generation ERC key features, facilitated industrial competitiveness by addressing the concept of the “Valley of Death” That valley lies between knowledge produced by basic research at universities and its utilization in commercial products in industry.

The reduced role of industrial R&D labs in the 1990s and beyond resulted in an increased reliance on small businesses as the risk-taking organizations in the innovation process. Industry was no longer heavily investing in long-term, high-risk research in its own laboratories and was investing less and less in long-term research in academia as well. As a result, the role of industrial research in exploring and proving a high-risk, potentially high-payoff new technology was increasingly assumed by small start-up R&D firms—some led by graduates and some with faculty involved. As a result, the ERC Program began to enable ERCs to invest more in translational research with small firms. Translational research with small R&D firms was defined as: Research that explores issues involved in moving a technology from the proof-of-concept stage through the early phases of product development. This experience led to the increased emphasis on building an innovation ecosystem in ERCs in partnership with small R&D firms, articulated in the third generation ERC construct. Both these concepts are described in detail in Chapter 6, Industrial Collaboration—especially in Section 6-E(d), “Gen-3 Planning—The Role of Industry.”

Overall, the ERC Program developed a new model of directing research, in partnership with industry, to target opportunities for innovation. In 2014, this was characterized as “organizational innovation” by Steven C. Currall and his colleagues in their retrospective view of the ERC Program and its impacts.

“Organized Innovation stands out by taking an organizational view of technology development and commercialization. In other words, our approach emphasizes how leaders in universities, business, and government can intentionally create and control organizational processes to optimize innovations success. ….. past thinking on innovation focused on…creativity as a largely individual endeavor or on innovation as a primarily social process.” Rather, “It is a “systematic method for leading the translation of scientific discoveries into societal benefit through commercialization through three pillars: Channeled Curiosity, Boundary-Breaking Collaboration, and Orchestrated Commercialization.”[4]

12-D    Has the ERC Construct Succeeded?

The ultimate question, in evaluating the ERC Program and the ERCs collectively, is whether this experiment—and it certainly was a daring experiment in 1985—has been a success.  

That question has several aspects:

  • First, did it succeed in changing the culture of academic engineering research and education to be more focused on industrial needs and to promote the ability of academe to pursue the kinds of basic research and produce graduates who could meet those needs?
  • Second, did the ERCs produce research results that led to major industrial innovations in products and processes that improved the competitiveness of U.S. industry?
  • Third, did the ERCs engage with their associated industries strongly enough that industry came to depend upon them for guidance in industry’s own future directions?
  • Fourth, did large numbers of ERC graduates become leaders in industry, both within existing companies and as founders of start-up companies?
  • Finally, after ERC Program funding from NSF ended, did a high percentage of ERCs continue to exist as self-sustaining centers operating with many of their ERC features intact?

In each case, an essential sub-question that must be asked is: Were these objectives realized in a more cost-effective and efficient manner than they would have if NSF had invested the same amount of money in individual research endeavors? In addressing these questions, we will summarize briefly and direct the reader to previous chapters of this History where the topic is addressed in greater detail.

12-D(a) Culture Change

There is no question that the ERCs and the Program itself have had a major impact on the culture of academic engineering in the U.S. Early in its history, in late 1987, Nam Suh, then the Assistant Director for Engineering at NSF, summarized “the most significant lesson learned” in the first three years of the Program as follows:

We are convinced that for the U.S. engineering infrastructure to be strong, we must have a proper balance among cross-disciplinary research, single-investigator-initiated research, and research in traditional engineering sciences and emerging engineering fields. Cross-disciplinary research and education run counter to the current culture of most engineering schools. The ERCs have taught us that the cross-disciplinary research area is weak. It must be strengthened.[5]

Largely through the influence of the ERCs on scores of campuses across the country over three decades, that imbalance has been redressed. Cross-disciplinary team research is now given equal status with single-investigator research. Issues of promotion and tenure in the context of multi-authored papers have been resolved, and the disciplinary departments no longer resist the efforts of faculty to be involved in center-organized research. Systems-focused research is seen as desirable and appropriate for engineering faculty. Working closely with industry no longer carries the stigma that it did thirty years ago. The involvement of undergraduates in research and their exposure to industrial practice has become commonplace. The integration of cutting-edge research results relevant to emerging and extant technology into engineering education has become the norm.

Finally, the award of an ERC was an incentive for academic leaders to invest university resources in the development of collaborative laboratories and equipment. Rather than prioritize limited resources to selected individual faculty, investments were made in “common” equipment and “shared” facilities that multiple principle investigators (PIs) could use in the service of the broader objectives defined by an ERC. For example, investing in cleanroom facilities or large-scale field stations like seismic stations or testing facilities made sense if you had multiple PIs (working together through an ERC) when it might not make sense for a single PI. Thus, a new culture of collaboration and innovation has been fostered in engineering schools, that would not have been achieved by a continuation of the single-investigator laboratory culture with its primary output goals of publications and producing the next generation of academic faculty These successes in “changing the culture” are discussed in greater detail in Chapter 3, Section 3-B(g), “Lessons Learned and Challenges Ahead” and Section 3-C, describing the Gen-3 ERCs.

12-D(b) Did the ERC Program Improve U.S. Industrial Competitiveness?

U.S. industrial competitiveness depends on a multitude of factors: the strength of the dollar, economic fluctuations, wage and interest rates, trade policy, etc. But among these is certainly the innovativeness of industry—its ability to convert research discoveries and technological advances into new products that capture a greater share of the global market and new processes that improve productivity and reduce costs. This ability to innovate depends on research and development and a creative and empowered industrial workforce. In this arena the ERCs have had a substantial impact on industries in many areas of technology.

The Program produced a wide range of enabling technologies and ground-breaking systems level technologies supporting, biotechnology processing, bioengineering, communications, electronics, energy harvesting and management, environmental protection, hazard mitigation, information processing and storage, manufacturing, medicine, optics, pharmaceuticals, and structural engineering. A 2010 study designed to track down the economic impact of these innovative technologies found an economic impact of $50 to $75 billion, compared to the roughly $1 billion ERC Program investment.[6] Details of the wide range of ERC-produced technologies can be found in Chapter 11.

ERCs function with teams of faculty across disciplines in engineering and science who share a common vision for an emerging technology. As a consequence, these teams have produced groundbreaking enabling and systems technology while also laying the foundations for new interdisciplinary fields with significant broad-based impacts in industry and on other practitioners. These included bioengineering, neuromorphic engineering, optoelectronics, and the interface of engineering with social sciences to bring improved decision making to first responders and physicians. 

The most extensive and impactful of these was the contribution of several ERCs to the development of the field of what is now called bioengineering or biological engineering. These efforts were motivated by the engineering mindset: namely, how do I understand biological components and systems in order to control or manipulate them to produce new pharmaceuticals, cure diseases, and/or build new biologically-based constructs as substitutes for failing or diseased body parts? The first ERC, funded in 1985, that set the stage for field development was the MIT Bioprocess Engineering Center (BPEC). BPEC focused on supporting the then-nascent biotechnology industry. Processing needs for this industry required the integration of knowledge of biology and chemical engineering. This work laid the foundation for the field of bioengineering, which reflected a deeper intersection of biology and engineering than prior work in traditional chemical engineering had That intersection stimulated the new field of biofilm engineering and eventually culminated in the field of synthetic biology.

Later ERCs focused more directly on medicine and these ERCS built platforms that integrated bioengineers, biologists, chemists, materials scientists, electrical engineers, and clinicians to explore new opportunities to engineer substitutes for failing organs and tissues. These explorations essentially expanded the biological knowledge base of the more traditional biomedical engineering efforts, which were earlier grounded in the interface of electro/mechanical devices to be implanted in the body, with little knowledge of how to address the body’s natural rejection of foreign materials.

Other ERCs explored and helped to advance the field of neuromorphic engineering, the design and construction of engineered systems which are modeled on, or are informed by, biological neural systems. The field grew out of the convergence of the growing field of neuroscience research that began in the 1980s through the intersection of the interests of a few eminent and free-thinking professors at Caltech—Richard Feynman, John Hopfield, and Carver Mead—with the fundamental laws of computation, particularly computation in biological systems.[7] The role of the ERC Program in the development of the field began in 1994 with the establishment of the Center for Neuromorphic Systems Engineering (CNSE), at CalTech, where engineers, computational scientists, and neurobiologists were driven by the desire to understand how the brain worked as a “neuro system” and how to design brain-like computers and artificial neural networks and their implementation, learning systems, sensory systems, algorithms, and applications in technology. As detailed in Chapter 5, later ERCs advanced the field by focusing on (1) microelectronic systems that would allow bi-directional communication with tissue, thus enabling implantable/portable microelectronic devices to treat presently incurable diseases such as blindness, paralysis, and the loss of cognitive function; and (2) neural-inspired sensorimotor devices that assist people with neurological disabilities, focusing on revolutionizing the treatment of stroke, spinal cord injury, and other debilitating neurological conditions using engineered neuroplasticity.

The ERC Program began investing in optoelectronics when the field was emerging in the 1980s. These investments laid the foundation for advances in the field. Initial investments  focused on multi-wavelength lightwave networks, as opposed to point-to-point systems, to exploit the enormous potential of optical communications (terabits per second); solving the interconnect problem in high-speed, high-density digital systems with rapidly advancing photonic and optoelectronic technologies; exploring the role of optics in computing and image processing. These early investments were followed in the 2000s by investment in (1) sensing and imaging systems to explore objects or tissue below the surface; (2) small-scale extreme ultraviolet technologies for high-resolution imaging, materials metrology and characterization, elemental- and molecular spectro-microscopy; (3) advance environmental monitoring optics technology; (4) “smart” lighting technology; and (4) optics technology to enable end user access to emerging real time, on-demand network services at data rates up to 100 Gbps anytime and anywhere at low cost and with high energy efficiency.

Finally, several ERCs worked in fields where the technology directly interfaced with populations that would use the technology. Among those users were first responders to natural hazard threats, architects, physicians, and caregivers of the aging or disabled. As detailed in Chapter 5, these ERCs made advances at the interface of technology and society by integrating the skills of engineers, decision scientists, and social scientists. For example, an ERC designed a tornado warning system to detect tornadoes with collaborative adaptive radars and effectively communicate these warnings to weather forecasters and first responders, decision makers at the forefront of tornado detection, warning, and responding. The three Earthquake Engineering Research Centers evolved from a purely technology focus to work with and support emergency management agencies to develop more reliable post-earthquake scenarios and to optimize their response and recovery activities through the use of advanced technologies and decision support systems, enhancing post-disaster response and accelerating the time to recovery after a major earthquake event.

12-D(c) Strong Engagement with Industry Partners and Other Users

As was noted earlier, at the time of inception of the ERC Program one of the urgent drivers of its emphasis on industrial competitiveness was international competitive pressure. At the same time, U.S. industries were ramping down their in-house basic research efforts. Those were important factors in encouraging industry to engage with the ERCs. By several years into the Program, ERCs were collaborating closely with their industrial partners, both for strategic planning of research at the ERCs and in terms of providing insights into roadmapping and strategic direction of the companies. Figure 12-2 illustrates the various ways in which member companies benefitted from the association with ERCs.

Figure 12-2: Benefits of ERC Membership for Industrial Firms (Source: SRI)

12-D(d) ERC Graduates as Technology Leaders

The ERC Program was challenged to build a new culture in US engineering schools that rested on research to advance fundamental knowledge but expanded the culture to include applying that knowledge to advancing technology in the context of engineered systems. The culture had to integrate faculty across disciplines in fundamental and applied research and form teams of faculty, students, and staff to build proof-of-concept testbeds to explore the technical feasibility of emerging technologies arising from the ERC’s research. Industry had to play a critical role in this partnership in order for the faculty and students to better understand the technology innovation process in a systems context and how technology is advanced in practice. A critical outcome was to better prepare graduates as innovators so they could quickly come up to speed as they entered the industrial workforce.

Tools that are critical to achieving this culture include:

  • An Industrial Liaison Officer, with experience in industry and academe, to develop and manage the ERC’s industrial program
  • Financial support from industry, governed by a membership agreement, giving the members a sense of “ownership” exercised through an Industrial Advisory Board
  • Engagement in joint research with students and faculty
  • Enabling proof-of-concept testbeds, initially at an academic scale, and later, if warranted, transferred to industry for further development
  • Engagement with the ERC Program through the preparation of a SWOT analysis and a private meeting with the annual site visit teams and NSF, as “joint investors” in the ERC.

The Program built this culture in engineering schools across the country. Evaluations of insights from the graduates about the impact of an ERC experience showed that:

  • 82 percent of graduates rated their ability to apply knowledge from different disciplines as better than their peers and more than half said that their ERC experience had a positive impact on this performance.[8]
  • Graduates who worked on ERC-sponsored prototyping (testbed) projects as students (64 percent of the sample[9]) believed they outperformed their peers on the job; 60 percent of doctoral graduates rated themselves as “much better than average” in their contributions to their company’s technical work, compared to 40 percent of ERC graduates who had not had this prototyping experience.[10]
  • 44 percent said they experienced a high or extremely high involvement in a systems approach to solving engineering problems as students, while 44 percent said there was a moderate involvement—for an overall 88 percent systems impact.[11]

All of the features in Table 12-1 are features of ERCs that are important to industry; ERC graduates in the first cohort performed from 53 to 80 percent better than single investigator-trained employees, and from 64 to 83 percent better in the second cohort. Analysis of the data clearly shows that an ERC experience had significant payback for the firms who hired these graduates.

Table 12-1: Comparison of Performance of Center Graduates with Comparable non-Center Hires (1994/5 and 2001/2)[12]

12-D(e) Does the ERC Construct Produce Sustainable Centers?

If the ERC construct is a viable construct as long as ERC Program funding is provided, the question remained: Were these centers viable and self-sustaining after NSF support ceased?  In 2010, at the suggestion of then-Division Director Allen Soyster, Preston asked Courtland Lewis, the communications contractor for the ERC Program, to conduct a survey of all graduated ERCs (then numbering 33) to determine their post-graduation status from a number of perspectives: their current strength (or vulnerability) as self-sufficient entities, the factors affecting their transition to self-sufficiency, the impact that the loss of NSF funding and ERC status may have had, their perceptions of NSF’s role in the transition process, and an overall assessment of whether the “journey” as an ERC had been worth the effort. Of particular interest was determining how many graduated centers had retained most or all of the ERC key features post-graduation. Extensive case studies of several centers were compiled.

Lewis engaged James Williams, the veteran Executive Director of the graduated Data Storage Systems Center, to conduct the surveys and collaborate with him in writing a summary report. The findings were surprising. At that time, 27 of the 33 centers, or 82 percent, were self-sustaining. Of those 27, 23 (85 percent) continued to embody “the primary characteristics that best define being an ‘ERC,’ which are the integration of research, education, and industrial interaction as their organizing principle while maintaining an engineered systems focus, with the continued involvement of undergraduate as well as graduate students in collaborative, cross-disciplinary research.”[13] (See Figure 12-3.) This degree of continuity reflects the degree of cultural change resulting from 10 years of ERC Program support and oversight that enabled these ERCs to remain self-sustaining—a validation of the ERC construct. 

Figure 12-3: ERC Characteristics Still in Place in 27 Self-sustaining Centers in 2010. (Source: Lewis and Williams, 2010)

Since that time, the rate of self-sufficiency has remained steady at around 83 percent. On this one measure alone—and it is an important one, since it indicates industry interest in seeing the ERCs continue in operation—the ERCs can be said to have succeeded as a platform for innovation on university campuses.

12-E     Lessons Learned by Graduated ERCs

As the first generation of centers graduated, from 1998 to 2001, they submitted final reports to NSF, some of which included a Lessons Learned section. These lessons contributed to improved ERC Program-level and center-level management, improved guidance to the ERCs, and were conveyed to the ongoing ERCs during annual meetings. They often summarized the ERCs’ struggles in fulfilling the expected performance requirements and the subsequent successes. Some were especially insightful about the program as a whole and its impact on academe, industry and the nation. The lessons learned below were distilled from those reports. There was one, written by Jim Solberg, the Director of the two Purdue ERCs focused on manufacturing, which was particularly insightful (see the entire report here).

The lessons learned below were contributed by the Gen-1 and Gen-2 ERCs and are summarized by feature. In the case of Gen-2, only insights that augment those of the Gen-1 ERCs are included.

Now that we are leaving the program and can speak without being accused of fostering our own interests, we would like to express the conviction that the ERC program is a proven success and should be significantly expanded. The justification is not as a reward for performance, or political pressure, or receiving a just share, but because the program is successfully fulfilling a vital national need that no other program addresses. The early investments, which were prudently limited to experimental levels, were clearly insufficient to fulfill the important national goals laid out in the National Academy report. The intervening years have seen the formation of many center and center-like research programs that superficially resemble the ERCs; we fear that the uniqueness of the ERC program is obscured and needs to be reaffirmed.
The evidence, supported by numerous independent studies, indicates that the ERC program is unique, effective, and efficient. It does important things that are not achievable in any other known manner. It has been instrumental in strengthening our national economic security. The ERC concept, which was always focused on long-term goals, is even more vital to American public interests today than when it was first conceived.
Purdue University (1999). Center for Collaborative Manufacturing, Final Report, December 1999, p. 14.  

12-E(a) Research and Strategic Planning

i.         Gen-1 ERCs’ Lessons Learned.

  • NSF’s long-term funding encourages more exploratory research and requires and protects cross-disciplinary research teaming.
  • Strategic planning is more difficult for methodology-based centers, as opposed to technology systems centers.
  • Systems-oriented strategic planning enables more effective anticipation of critical research areas than is typical in individual or small group research projects, which are narrowly focused.
  • NSF, industry, and sometimes state funding, enable large-scale testbeds otherwise not available to the researchers.

ii.      Additional Gen-2 ERCs’ Lessons Learned

  • A clear vision of the core goals and intellectual structure of the ERC is absolutely essential for success—it’s crucial to understand what the ERC is trying to accomplish, why that’s important, and how the various research elements and testbeds fit together.
  • To make a real impact on large complex areas, like medicine and the environment, requires engineers to work at the systems level in interdisciplinary teams, solving lots of interrelated problems that together address the systems challenges in proof-of-concept testbeds that function well enough to be a springboard for users to advance—a difficult but essential challenge for academia.
  • It’s OK to change direction, reschedule planned milestones, or otherwise make changes in the strategic roadmap. Actually it’s more than OK; it’s the job of the center director to affect these changes when changes are necessary.
  • NSF funding provides significant infrastructure, including support for professional engineering staff in the development and evolution of long-term testbed systems.
  • Be sure the research program is flexible enough to enable faculty to pursue high-risk and opportunistic research directions consistent with the ERC’s vision and goals.
  • Develop measures to asses system-level performance in testbeds, build the system-level testbeds, and validate with end users to optimize design and eventual acceptance by users.

12-E(b) Industrial Collaboration

i.         Gen-1 ERCs’ Lessons Learned

  • Work closely with industry to understand their problems and deliver what is promised in a timely fashion or the industrial interest will die quickly.
  • Industrial collaboration works best when it begins at the early stages of the project or before start-up.
  • Provide industry with a new type of student who is more familiar with industrial practice and delivering tangible results and industry will hire more of the ERC’s students.

ii.      Additional Gen-2 ERCs’ Lessons Learned

  • The industry SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) meetings were a valuable way to hone the directions of the research to assure maximum impact, resulting in many new projects that translate technologies to industry and provide an industrial context for students.
  • For biomedical ERCs and other ERCs with a direct link to end users, a more direct path to potential industrial members is through clinicians and end users who can provide problem focus and user feedback plus contacts with industrial collaborators.
  • The higher you go in the hierarchical structure in industry, the more open the industry executives are to hearing new ideas, to supporting fundamental research, to expecting long-term deliverables, and to supporting their mid-level colleagues who participate with the ERC.

12-E(c)  Education, Diversity, and ERC Graduates

i.         Gen-1 ERCs’ Lessons Learned

  • Provide your students with a cross-disciplinary, teaming culture and a close working relationship with industry and they will be sought after by industry or seed a new culture in academe.
  • Many of these unique students will rise in leadership positions in industry and academe because of the ERC experience.
  • Involve undergraduates in research during the academic year, some of which can be short term, so they have the opportunity to learn how to deliver results
  • Research Experiences for Undergraduates and undergraduate programs are desirable as they feed students into graduate programs and provide mentoring opportunities for graduate students
  • If you want to attract female and other underrepresented students to your ERC and engineering, you have to start early, before high school, so they understand opportunities offered by the engineering mindset and can choose the right courses to pursue for an engineering degree.
  • Involving teachers in the ERC enhances the likelihood that engineering will have an impact on pre-college students.

ii.      Additional Gen-2 ERCs’ Lessons Learned

  • Hire an Education Director who is dedicated solely to the education, outreach, and diversity programs of the ERC. Using a faculty member with other responsibilities or sharing staff with some other entity does not work.
  • Establish a prominent Student Leadership Council to act as a liaison between the ERC students and the ERC management and administration; have the students elect their leaders and compensate the leaders for their effort.
  • Try to have almost all the ERC’s graduate students located in one area to facilitate informal discussions, build a mutual support system and personal friendships among the students, develop more effective collaboration and understanding among students from different cultures and countries, and achieve more effective communication and updates on latest developments, etc.
  • Develop your diversity strategic plan early, staff it and find resources to support it, and above all work in collaboration with the departments who admit these students to develop a broader commitment to diversity.
  • Cross-institutional educational interaction is hard to achieve when the partner institutions are distant from each other, but an infrastructure of teleconferencing, web-based courses, and cross-institutional seminars and courses can bridge the gap, all requiring an articulation agreement.

12-E(d) Center Configuration, Leadership, and Administration

i.         Gen-1 ERCs’ Lessons Learned

  • Strong administrative core structure and dedicated staff for the ERC are essential for success and ERC Program support enables this, whereas typical single-investigator support does not.
  • Strong partnerships with department chairs, deans, the university vice president for research, and the university president are essential for long-term success.
  •  ERCs cannot compete with departments but rather must enhance the departmental faculties’ capabilities.
  • Establish an external advisory board to gain a broader scope of input and critique than is possible through the annual NSF site visit.

ii.      Additional Gen-2 ERCs’ Lessons Learned

  • Use the ERC environment to help junior faculty jump-start their careers and use the ERC’s interdisciplinary structure in recruiting.
  • Don’t underestimate the importance of a shared physical facility that allows faculty, students, and staff from different disciplines to work together collaboratively.
  • The discipline and performance insights derived from data collection for the ERC Program requirements should be extended to all future requests for support from NSF.
  • Respect and empower your colleagues and, wherever possible, shield them from the stresses of running the ERC.
  • Faculty and students from minority-serving institutions must not be treated as “minority” members of the team.
  • Multi-university centers are challenging, especially when geographically dispersed; a wider dispersion of ERC funds can impact buy-in.
  • NSF should understand that in a multi-university ERC, there will be more administrative support required from the lead university and less from the partners.

12-E(e)  NSF Oversight

i.         Gen-1 ERCs’ Lessons Learned

  • Take the annual review process seriously, as the reviews strengthen the center.
  • Be aware that ERC program requirements reach beyond research and traditional education, broadening—or some might say, burdening—the ERCs with pre-college education, establishing and nurturing an industrial consortium, and carrying out broader outreach including collaboration with other ERCs. In other words, be ready to play by the ERC Program “rules.”

ii.      Additional Gen-2 ERCs’ Lessons Learned

  • Define your goals and how you think your success should be measured, don’t let the site visit team do that for you, if the ERC Program doesn’t fit your team’s long-term goals, then it would be better to leave the program than distort your work
  • Help NSF and collect meaningful information. If NSF can use your information to point to the impact the ERC Program is having, then it’s good for future support for all.
  • Reporting and data gathering are the yin and yang of the ERC Program; the trick is to keep the benefit commensurate with the cost of collection. Establish the database system early and continue collecting and reporting data to the ERC reporting requirements, industry, and other sponsors.
  • In multi-university ERCs, it is harder to meet NSF’s expectations for financial management, leading to long lag times between expenditures at a partner campus, billing back to the lead university, and dispersing of funds to the partner—resulting in what NSF’s administrators see as a large annual unspent balance. NSF’s administrative offices should be more flexible in its expectations regarding this cycle, as its residual funds regulations appear to be geared to single-investigator grants to single universities.
  • NSF should require interdisciplinary research but not require multi-university configurations, as some universities are large enough to mount the required cadre of faculty from within, reducing long-term burdens.
  • Use the required SWOT reports to stimulate an integrated team and break down the single-investigator culture.

12-E(f)   Graduation

i.         Gen-1 ERCs’ Lessons Learned

  • Build a strong relationship with the university administration early on to facilitate survival after NSF support ceases.
  • Graduation threatens tuition waivers and return of overhead.

ii.      Additional Gen-2 ERCs’ Lessons Learned

  • Begin planning for self-sufficiency early, formulate an effective business plan and get the upper administration to buy-in to the plan, become a stakeholder, and make a commitment to the ERC beyond NSF funding. This takes time and dedication, but it pays off.
  • The ERC Program used to require a summative review at the end of the funding period and a celebration, which brought together reviewers who served over the 10-year period of funding and faculty, students, and graduates supported by the ERC, plus the ERC’s university administrators and the faculty’s family members.  These reviews were curtailed in 2014. Since they were an excellent way for the ERC to gain input from its long-term reviewers, celebrate its achievements, especially to industry and the university administrators, and bring members of the faculty and staff’s families together, they should be continued by graduating ERCs. You will be very proud of showcasing your achievements and getting up-to-date view of your graduates’ contributions in industry and academe.

12-F    Guidance for Start-up ERC-like Programs

Reviewing this history, the authors have the following advice for leaders of start-up center programs of this scope:

12-F(a) Program-level Guidance

  • Guidance from outside committees that is motivated by strengthening the country’s economy is critical in gaining and maintaining executive, legislative, and cross-sector support.
  • Implement this guidance so there is a structure to the features you expect the centers to build and address; vague goals without clear features will result in confusion of missions across the funded centers, and over-specifying features risks stifling the creativity of the awardees.
  • Avoid overly large start-up budgets, for individual centers, as large budgets can lead to “packing” the faculty to spend the funds rather than strategically selecting faculty over time who can change the culture as expected, given the program’s goals.
  • Gradually increase the center budgets, as starting up a center at full-budget scale without expectations for growth can lead to reduced incentives to perform and, again, to “packing” of faculty on the team who may not be fully committed to the vision.
  • Appoint an innovative and committed program leader who can lead a team of engineers and scientists and staff to develop and operate the program over a sustained period of time.
  • If you expect the outcome to be innovative and cross-disciplinary, program staff should be equally so, with the ability to nurture a center to improve its performance but also with the strength to recommend funding termination if the center cannot achieve its goals.
  • Some staff members should have industrial experience that involves research or have funded this type of research.
  • Organizationally, directors of the division where the program is housed should support the program with good communication up through the chain of command and give the program staff room for innovation and creativity, ideally without constant checks for approval at the division level or above.
  • Develop a post-award instrument, like a cooperative agreement, to ensure that your investment is monitored and pays off.
  • Develop and maintain a post-award oversight system geared to checking and improving performance of ongoing centers and pruning out those that cannot perform early in their lifespans, to leave room for those that can.[14]

12-F(b) Center-level Guidance

  • Function with a vision that is consistent with the goals of the program.
  • Develop a strategic planning culture to focus the research to create cross-disciplinary research programs that are defined by technology goals and not by the goals of individual researchers; but understand that it takes time for such a culture to function effectively in academia, if it has not been part of the culture already.
  • Integrate the new research culture with the institution’s educational goals so that a broader range of students than the center can engage are impacted by the changes in the culture achieved through the center.
  • Develop an active partnership with industry and other users of the ERC’s research, including guidance on strategic planning, financial support, and engagement with students, so they better understand the culture of practice in the user community.
  • Financial support from industry, governed by a membership agreement, leads to greater commitment to involvement by and a greater impact on industry.

Lessons are also important for academic leaders as they consider competing for such a center award and developing and managing the award if they succeed:

  • Deans should not encourage proposals written by teams that are not innovative enough to push the boundaries of the current culture to address the program’s goals.
  • If awarded, provide leadership oversight to ensure that the Center Director and his/her team have the required leadership/management skills and help them acquire them if not, or provide additional management support.
  • Adjust the academic reward structure to expectations from the program and industry/users that tenure and promotion will be based on additional factors beyond publication to include technological innovation, cross-disciplinary research resulting from team projects, and involvement in education.
  • Fulfill promises made in the proposal for infrastructure and financial support.

Be mindful that the ERC post-award system grew in complexity over time as the NSF itself grew into a more complex bureaucracy, the size of the ERC Program budget grew, and the size of the awards became large enough to generate oversight by the management team of the NSF Office of the Inspector General. This complexity was not always a positive feature as it became too proscriptive. A word of caution to those developing new center programs:  keep the oversight system clear and focused and resist micromanagement throughout the system.

12-G    Validation

At the beginning of this final chapter of the History, the question was asked: In evaluating the ERC Program and the ERCs collectively, was this daring experiment a success? Were the innovative management approaches taken by the Program validated by results? Perhaps the strongest validation of the Program’s success—apart from the simple fact that it still continues to evolve and function vigorously today, more than 35 years after its establishment—is the continued success of most of the centers that it gave birth to and that “left the nest” to continue flourishing productively in the world after the end of ERC Program support. The linked file “Validation of ERC Construct Through Surviving Graduation or Early Termination,” which includes several case studies, provides that validation and makes clear that this program has delivered on the challenge set for it by the NAE and NSF in 1985 to become one of the most successful academic engineering programs ever initiated by the federal government.

[1] 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.

[2] See Chapter 3, ERC Generations -1 to -3: How They Evolved, for a full history of the evolution of ERC key features.

[3] Currall, Steven C., Ed Frauenheim, Sara Jane Perry, and Emily M. Hunter (2014). Organized Innovation—A Blueprint for Renewing America’s Prosperity. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. x-xi.

[4] Currall et al., op. cit., p. 141.

[5] Suh, Nam P. (1987). The ERCs: What have we learned? Engineering Education, 78, October 1987, p. 17.

[6] Lewis, Courtland S. (2010). Innovations: ERC-Generated Commercialized Products, Processes, and Startups. Report to the National Science Foundation, Engineering Directorate, Engineering Education and Centers Division. Melbourne, FL: SciTech Communications, February 2010.

[7] This section is synthesized from Perona, Pietro and Joel Burdick (2006). Center for Neuromorphic Systems Engineering, Final Report, Pasadena CA, May 17, 2006. pp 8-9.

[8] Ibid., p. 72.

[9] Ibid., Appendix C, Question 21 response.

[10] Ibid., p. 76.

[11] Ibid. Appendix C., Question 30 response.

[12]Roessner, J. David, David W. Cheney, H.R. Coward (2004). Impact on Industry of Interactions with Engineering Research Centers–Repeat Study, Summary Report, December 2004. Arlington, VA: SRI International (P11537), p. 28.

[13] Lewis, Courtland S. and James E. Williams, Jr. (2010). Post-Graduation Status of National Science Foundation Engineering Research Centers: Report of a Survey of Graduated ERCs. Melbourne, FL: SciTech Communications, LLC., p. 13.

[14] Guidance given to the ERC Program staff by industry early in the development of the lifespan of the ERCs included a third-year renewal review instead of at the fifth year, which might be more common, as well as a sixth-year review, to quickly weed out those centers that cannot effectively develop an ERC culture and deliver on their proposed goals.