Chapter 3: ERC Generations -1 to -3: How they Evolved

This chapter encompasses the evolution of the ERC construct and their major key features between 1985 and 2014, when three “generations” of ERCs were funded.1 A generation of ERCs is a set of year-classes of ERCs governed by a similar and evolving ERC Program Announcement and oversight philosophy. In terms of years awarded, the generations are defined as follows:

Gen-1:  Class of 1985 through Class of 1990 – 21 ERCs Funded

Gen-2:   Class of 1995 through Class of 2006 – 31 ERCs Funded

Gen-3:  Class of 2008 through to 2014 – 12 ERCs funded

The ERC Program developed a new model of directing research and education, 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.” 2

3-A       Gen-1 ERCs and the Evolution of the ERC Construct Through a Strong University/Industry/Government Partnership

Between 1985 and 1990, the first generation of the ERC construct was implemented to stimulate a wide range of systems-level technologies and a more competitive engineering workforce through an innovative university/industry/government partnership. The ERC key features were structured over this time as a construct to focus the centers on innovation in technology and education. Those listed below (section 3-A(a)) were distilled from the ERC Program Announcements to represent the first generation of ERC features used to create 21 ERCs in the Classes of 1985 to 1990.

During the start of this period, Lewis G. (“Pete”) Mayfield led the Office of Cross-Disciplinary Research, where the ERC Program was housed, and Lynn Preston served as his Deputy in managing the Office and the ERC Program. In 1986, with the reorganization of the Directorate for Engineering, the Office was changed to a Division and NSF management brought in an academic to assume the role of Deputy Division Director. Preston continued to serve in the ERC Program, responsible for post-award oversight, the development of the industrial collaboration feature of the ERCs, and other management issues. Mayfield retired from NSF in 1987 and Marshall Lih replaced him as the Division Director. Lih also managed the ERC Program until 1988, when Lynn Preston’s role as Deputy Division Director was restored and she assumed the role of manager of the ERC Program in 1988 and its leader in 1990.

In 1988 Nam Suh left the Foundation and his successor as Assistant Director for Engineering was John White, formerly Dean of Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology. White also had been the Director of an Industry/University Cooperative Research Center on manufacturing. In 1990 Erich Bloch left the Foundation. His successor in 1991 was Walter Massey, a physicist, who was more in the mold of a traditional NSF director, except for the fact that he was an African-American and was interested in partnerships with industry3. The Program’s budget, which had started at $10M in 1985, rose to $ 42.5M by 1990.  In 1985 the ERC budget was 7 percent of the total budget for the Directorate for Engineering of 143M4 and by 1991 at 5.77M it was 19 percent of 237.66M5.

3-A(a)    Gen-1 ERC Key Features: The ERC Construct

The first ERC Program Announcement in 1984, generating the first Class of Gen-1 ERCs gave the first definition of the ERC Construct:6 The features below are distilled from that announcement.

  • Provide research opportunities to develop fundamental knowledge in areas critical to U.S. competitiveness in world markets.
  • Focus on a major technological concern of both industrial and national importance.
  • Involve a cross-disciplinary team effort, contributing more to the focus and goals of the Center than would occur with individually funded research projects.
  • Emphasize the systems aspects of engineering and help educate and train students in synthesizing, integrating, and managing engineering systems.
  • Provide experimental capabilities not available to individual investigators.
  • Include the participation of engineers and scientists from industrial organizations in order to focus the activities on current and projected industry needs and enhance understanding of systems aspects of engineering. State and local agencies or government laboratories involved in engineering practice may also be participants.
  • Develop new methods for the timely and successful transfer of knowledge to industrial users. Codification of new knowledge generated at the Center and continuing education of practicing engineers may be another component.
  • Include a significant education component involving both graduate (Ph.D. and MS) and undergraduate students in the research activities, exposing future engineers to many aspects of engineering rather than one specific field and better prepare them for the systems nature of engineering practice.

Figure 3-1 depicts the Gen-1 ERCs and their locations.

Figure 3-1:  The 21 Gen-1 ERCs in the Classes of 1985 through 1990

3-A(b)    Technology Areas Funded in Classes of 1985–1990

The first ERC Program Announcement provided technology areas as general examples, not as suggested or required fields of technology. These were: systems for data and communications, computer-integrated manufacturing, materials processing, transportation, and construction. Developed by Pete Mayfield in consultation with other leaders in the Engineering Directorate, they were given as examples to convey to the proposing community that the ERCs would not be focused narrowly. Proposing institutions were invited to identify their own systems-level subject areas. However, as Pete Mayfield pointed out, “The proposals received seemed to be unduly driven by the examples.”7 These examples had been generated to signify the intellectual scope expected of ERC proposals, not as preferences. But by the second announcement, producing the Class of 1986, those example areas were dropped to encourage proposing institutions, PIs, and their industrial members to generate topics they believed were the most important to supporting U.S. industrial competitiveness. It was felt that this “greenfield” approach would reach the true needs of industry and society coupled to academic research capacity, as opposed to lists generated by NSF staff or committees at the National Academies. This was the policy that guided the Program from then on.

The result of this policy was that the topic areas of the ERCs funded in the first generation were broadly distributed across systems technologies important to industry at that time. Over time a few of these ERCs also established the groundwork for whole new fields of engineering, such as biological engineering and interfacial engineering. The ERCs funded and their founding center directors are clustered in the following areas:

  • Biotechnology Process Engineering Center (BPEC), Daniel I.C. Wang, Center Director, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Class of 1985
  • ERC for Emerging Cardiovascular Technologies, Theo Pilkington, Center Director, Duke University and other North Carolina Universities, Class of 1987
  • Center for Biofilm Engineering, William Characklis, Center Director, Montana State University, Class of 1990
  • Center for Composites Manufacturing Science and Engineering, R. Byron Pipes, Center Director, University of Delaware and Rutgers University, Class of 1985
  • Center for Robotic Systems in Microelectronics, Susan Hackwood, Center Director, University of California at Santa Barbara, Class of 1985
  • Center for Intelligent Manufacturing Systems, King Sun Fu, Center Director, Purdue University, Class of 1985
  • Engineering Design Research Center, Sarosh Talukar and Arthur Westerburg, Center Co-Directors, Carnegie Mellon University, Class of 1986
  • ERC for Net Shape Manufacturing, Taylan Altan, Center Director, Ohio State University, Class of 1986
  • ERC for interfacial Engineering, D. Fennell Evans, Center Director, University of Minnesota, Class of 1988-89
  • Center for Advanced Electronic Materials Processing, Nino Masnari, Center Director, North Carolina State University, Class of 1988-89
  • ERC for Plasma-Aided Processing, Leon Shohet,Center Director,University of Wisconsin and the University of Minnesota, Class of 1988-89
  • Center for Advanced Technology for Large Structural Systems, John Fisher, Center Director, Lehigh University, Class of 1986
  • Advanced Combustion Engineering Research Center, L. Douglas Smoot, Center Director, Brigham Young University and the University of Utah, Class of 1986
  • Engineering Research Center for Hazardous Substance Control, Sheldon Friedlander, Center Director, University of California, Los Angeles, Class of 1987
  • Offshore Technology Research Center, Jack Flipse, Center Director, Texas A&M University and the University of Texas, Austin, Class of 1989
  • Engineering Center for Telecommunications Research, Mischa Schwarz, Center Director, Columbia University, Class of 1985
  • Systems Research Center (SRC), John S. Baras, Center Director, University of Maryland and Harvard University, Class of 1985
  • ERC for Compound Semiconductor Microelectronics, Steven G. Bishop, Center Director, University of Illinois, Urbana/Champaign, Class of 1986
  • Optoelectronic Computing Systems, Thomas Cathey, Center Director, University of Colorado and Colorado State University, Class of 1987
  • Data Storage Systems Center, Mark Kryder, Center Director, Carnegie Mellon University, Class of 1990
  • Center for Computational Field Simulation, Joseph Thompson, Center Director, Mississippi State University, Class of 1990

The third-year renewal reviews, beginning in 1987, pruned three ERCs from this group:  the ERCs at the University of Delaware (Class of 1985), the University of California at Los Angeles (Class of 1987), and the University of California at Santa Barbara (Class of 1985). Among the reasons that the two ERCs from the Class of 1985 failed their renewal reviews were an insufficient effort to create a research program to address the proposed systems focus (for one), failure to recruit domestic firms (for one), ineffective leadership (for both), weak university commitment (for one), and lack of faculty involvement (for one). As a result, the post-award oversight system was strengthened to include improve criteria for strengths and weaknesses, and recruitment of NSF program directors who could provide both encouragement and criticism,

3-A(c)     Post-Award Oversight

The post-award oversight system for ERCs began to take form in 1985. Through this system the Program delivered a “message” to the community that because of the importance of the ERC Program’s mission, the traditional NSF passive approach to monitoring post-award performance would not achieve the Program’s goals. The Program would not provide continued support to centers that functioned in an academic “business as usual” mode of operation without the necessary redirection required by the key features.

The following processes were created to achieve that mission:

  • A cooperative agreement, which stipulated responsibilities of the funded ERC and the NSF in the award. Given that the goals of the award were to fulfill the promises in the proposal and the mission of the ERC Program, such an award instrument was necessary to ensure that those goals were met, which is not possible under a grant and would be too restrictive under a contract. The cooperative agreement was modeled after agreements NSF had used to support facilities, but had not previously been used to support research. The agreement described the following:
    • Funding amounts and schedules, reporting requirements, special requirements for a particular center, and joint NSF-awardee activities.
    • By 1987, submission of a long-range research plan—a strategic plan—detailing how it will carry out its work and within what time frames.
    • Holding of annual meetings with industry and attending a meeting with NSF and other centers.
    • Keeping of a database in order to provide NSF with quantitative indicators of its activities and progress in meeting program goals.
    • Continued support would depend, among other things on an annual review of progress.8
  • Reporting requirements and guidelines to ensure that the ERC focused on its goals, gathered information to support its performance claims, and reported that to NSF.
  • An ERC Program-level database to record quantitative information about the ERCs’ resources, funding, and outputs. The linked file shows the types of data collected by ERCs and displayed by the ERC Program in those years.
  • Post-award performance criteria relevant to each key feature and center management systems. (See file “Gen-2 Performance Criteria-Final_2013” for a later evolution of the original criteria.)
  • Post-award oversight through annual on-campus site visits by NSF Program staff and teams of the peers of the faculty, under guidance common across all funded ERCs.
  • A community of sharing was established through annual meetings of the leaders and key staff of the ERCs and NSF staff to share successes and failures so as to improve center and Program performance. (See Chapter 9, section J for further discussion of community-building activities.)

3-A(d)    How to Better Understand the Engineering Systems Concept

By 1986, the ERC Program staff began to explore concepts that were especially pivotal to the ERC idea or construct but that still needed some clarification of meaning for NSF and the academic community. The first feature tackled was engineering systems. A workshop, which was requested by industry, was funded to explore this pivotal feature of ERCs and to better understand industry’s role in ERC research programs.9 This workshop helped to clarify that engineering systems:

Combine knowledge from engineering and other fields to lead to a broader understanding of manufacturing and other processes and the role of engineers in those processes.

Engineering education would have to be reformed to provide experiences with engineering systems that would enable graduates to:

Make engineering decisions based on judgment (with insufficient data), to balance trade-offs, and to perceive the human and economic consequences of those trade-offs.10

This was broad, general guidance meant to counteract the “heavy” academic emphasis on analytic solutions, which at that time was seen as leaving younger engineers lacking in the “feel” for systems synthesis that engineers had once possessed, resulting in an emphasis on specialized tasks in industry.11

3-A(e)    Strategic Planning in Gen-1 ERCs

By 1987, after the outcome of reviews of the first two classes of ERCs, there was a strong indication that some of the ERCs were not successfully focusing their research to address their engineering systems goals; rather, some continued to resemble collections of single investigator projects, with little or none of the synthesis that was needed to address higher-level engineering systems goals. Industry voiced the same concerns. In February 1987, Preston led a team of ERC PDs to work with industry to determine how to address these concerns. The result was a requirement that ERCs develop strategic plans for research. This reflected a philosophy that “directed” fundamental and applied research was a more effective means of achieving engineering systems goals than was research motivated by the separate interests of faculty or targeted problem-solving for industry. The ERC Annual Meeting was used to explore the strategic planning construct and how to develop it in an academic culture.

As ERC Program staff voiced to the GAO in 1987, “The goal was for these plans to serve to organize the research to reflect industry’s needs for deliverables and the researchers’ needs for freedom to pursue individual research interests.”12 Preston remembers that the use of the word deliverables caused a lot of consternation among the academics, as their primary goal was to deliver publications, not technology. This conflict was ameliorated by a later clarification that a technology deliverable for an ERC would be proof-of-concept, as opposed to an “industrial” prototype.

At the same time, Erich Bloch, the Director of NSF, asked Preston to set up a workshop to explore the concept of management of technology—managing the research needed to explore the development of new technologies. The results of this workshop contributed to the strategic planning capacity at NSF and helped establish the field of Management of Technology.13

3-A(f)     Engineering Education and the Future Workforce in Gen-1 ERCs

Gen-1 ERC education programs were the platform where an ERC’s research culture could be integrated with the engineering school’s education culture to produce an ERC experience that prepared graduates for success in industrial practice and provided new curricular materials related to the ERCs systems focus and its cross-disciplinary research. They were required to include a broad range of students from undergraduate to doctoral students, involving them in cross-disciplinary research and systems research experiences and thinking. They also were required to integrate their unique research findings into the curricula of their home institutions and disseminate them beyond. Workforce training for practicing engineers was encouraged but not pursued by all funded ERCs. The Gen-1 ERCs were to form groups of graduate and undergraduate students, engaged in research projects with their sights on technology advances and a systems perspective—a first for engineering education. Pre-college education was not required and not really on the ERC Program’s “radar” yet.14 However, it was on the radar of a few innovative early ERCs, like the Purdue ERC for Intelligent Manufacturing Systems (Class of 1985), out of a concern for the future engineering workforce. That ERC began to experiment with a partnership with a local middle school to bring an engineering experience to those classrooms. The Systems Research Center at the University of Maryland and Harvard University ran a seminar for high school students to expose them to engineering design. These experiments in K–12 outreach inspired other ERCs to pursue a variety of programs aimed at precollege students and teachers. (See Chapter 7, Education and Outreach Programs.)

3-A(g)    Development of Industrial Collaboration in Gen-1: An Industry/University/ Government Partnership

Industrial partnerships were from the start a significantly important feature of ERCs, right behind research in importance. The overall goals were for industrial participation in research and education, industrial financial support, and technology transfer through students and via industrial involvement in the research as it progressed. Gen-1 ERCs developed strong partnerships with industry over time, the outcome of which was thoroughly evaluated during the Gen-2 time period. This was a period of learning how to build effective collaboration programs through which industry could identify significant barriers in the way of envisioned next-generation technology advances and by which the academics could point to even more challenging technology futures—a key difference from the nearer-term and problem-focused NSF University-Industry Cooperative Research Centers (I/UCRCs). In addition, the engagement of industry with students gave ERC faculty and graduates a better understanding of industrial practice, so ERC graduates could come up to speed much more quickly in industry. Initially, the 1987 GAO survey of funded ERCs in the Classes of 1985 and 1986 found that industry members rated “access to the research that matched their interests” (89 percent) and “the quality of knowledge and researchers” (88 percent) as extremely to very important reasons for participating in an ERC. However, a majority of members related that they had little or no impact on the ERC’s research agenda.15 This was a motivator for the requirement for strategic planning and a strengthened role for industrial advisory boards that came into play in the late 1980s.

3-A(h)    Input from Assessments of the ERC Program in 1989 and NSF’s Responses Through Time

There were three assessments of the progress and impact of the ERC Program during this period. The first was an assessment by the General Accounting Office during 1986-198716, which was requested by Congress to determine if the Program was meeting its goals and that program management had not regressed to function in a typical passive NSF mode of operation. The second was an NSF report to Congress in 1988 focused on knowledge transfer from NSF-supported centers and laboratories to small businesses.17 The third was an assessment by the NAE that was requested by Erich Bloch in 1988 to determine progress of the ERC Program in achieving its goals.18 Please see Chapter 9, section M for a fuller discussion of these assessments and their impact on the ERCs and the ERC Program.

The GAO report found that: (1) research quality was the most important criterion in selecting centers, with a proposal’s contribution to industrial competitiveness and education following in importance; (2) NSF had an effective post-award oversight system through on-campus site visits using outside peer reviewers to evaluate ERCs, but it was too early in the process to determine the strengths and weaknesses of the ERC approach. They also found that (3) a wide range of industries participated in the program and planned to continue their support; industry believed that the quality of the research was the most important reason they sponsored an ERC, and that it was too early to determine the program’s impact on engineering education, since it was too early for the firms to have hired ERC graduates. Finally, (4) industry voiced a need for a way to strengthen their input to and influence on the ERCs’ research agendas.19

The NSF report to Congress on the transfer of knowledge to small business from NSF-supported centers and laboratories found that the 14 ERCs in 1988, in particular, had the most active involvement of small businesses in comparison with the  Materials Research Laboratories and the 39 IUCRCs—probably due to active encouragement of such involvements by the ERC Program The field of biotechnology, represented by the MIT Bioprocess ERC (BPEC), involved the most small firms; as BPEC’s research proceeded toward application in many fields, the involvement of small firms grew. Joint projects with small firms appeared to be one of the best ways to achieve transfer and all ERCs had at least one of these projects.20

The NAE assessment found that:

  • The mission of the ERC Program is at least as important to the Nation’s engineering schools and industries today as it was when the program was first designed.
  • The Program is achieving the objectives set for it in the Compton Report.
  • Certain problems broadly affect the Program. First among these is funding, which strongly bears on scope and quality.

The report recommended:

  • To Congress and the Administration that:
    • a renewed effort be made to achieve the original funding targets of the Program.
  • To the director of NSF that:
    • the ERC Program continue to be managed as a distinct program with a unique mission and that it not be subsumed under other programs;
    • if funding constraints continue, first priority be given to growing the already established ERCs to their original award sizes; only then should new ERCs be established; and that
    • NSF should continue to increase the representation of industry in its various advisory groups.
  • To the assistant director of engineering at NSF that:
    • suggestions to add to or change the original mission of ERCs be resisted;
    • a preproposal process be established to ease the costs of proposal preparation;
    • the selection and review process be thoroughly examined, particularly in regard to consistency of reviews from year to year, composition of review teams, and the purpose of “informal” annual reviews; and that
    • if NSF chooses to target areas of technology for future ERCs, it do so in a way that does not preempt the possibility of worthwhile proposals in other areas.21

The most far-reaching of these recommendations—to increase funding of ongoing ERCs in lieu of making new ERCs—resulted in a hiatus in the creation of new ERCs for three years between the start of the Class of 1990 and the Class of 1994.

3-A(i)     Lessons Learned

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

  • 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.
  • Strategic planning is required 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 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 is impacted by the changes in the culture achieved through the center.
  • If you expect industrial support and collaboration, involve industry in an advisory capacity at the program and center levels to strengthen the ability of the program to address industry’s needs.
  • Fully funding a center without expectations for industrial funding support would lead to a lesser impact of industrial ideas on the center in academic cultures not already closely collaborating with industry.
  • Industry support for memberships leads to additional and increased support for joint projects directly related to the ERC’s mission.
  • Starting up a center with 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.
  • Starting up a center at full budget scale without expectations for growth can lead to reduced incentives to perform.
  • If you expect the outcome to be innovative and cross-disciplinary, program staff should be the same, spanning disciplines within and outside those expected to be funded, including the social sciences to strengthen the impact of the program on the economy and/or society.
  • Agency Program Directors must have the ability to nurture a center to improve its performance but also 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, 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.22

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 goals that are as outside of “business as usual” as those of the ERC Program.
  • 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 else provide additional management support.
  • Academic reward structure will have to adjust to expectations from NSF and industry that tenure and promotion be based on additional factors beyond publication to include technological innovation, research resulting from team projects, and education.
  • Fulfill promises made in the proposal for infrastructure and financial support.
  • Use the failure to achieve an award for a strong proposal as a springboard for new proposals to other programs for center or group awards or resubmittals to the original program, especially in view of the relationships with prospective industrial members who have already “bought into” the team and its vision.

For more on this subject, see Chapter 4, “The University Perspective.”

Lessons were also gathered about what it takes to be an effective center director. During the Gen-1 period, the model for a center director was a strong and visionary person who could persuade a team of independent-minded faculty to join together to work to advance technology in ways not possible under typical single-investigator support. He/she had to be able to convince the faculty that there was more than money coming their way by providing opportunity to gain support for new kinds of collaborations across disciplines in new fields. At that time the structure was quite hierarchical, as the concept of “team leader” had not entered into the management lexicon in academe. In 1996, the Director of the Montana State Center for Biofilm Engineering, William Costerton, wrote a Profile of an “ideal” ERC Director for the Leadership chapter of the ERC Best Practices Manual that distilled these qualities as they were envisioned at the time.23

3-B       Gen-2 ERCs: Honing the ERC Construct and University/Industry/ Government Partnership for Productivity Between 1994 and 2006

Between 1994 and 2006 the ERC construct was honed, giving it the characteristics of “organized innovation” described by Currall and his colleagues.[24] This organization of innovation produced robust innovations in research management, new knowledge from integrating disciplines to address systems goals, a broad range of new technologies, significant benefits to industry, and an engineering workforce better able to contribute to innovation in industry earlier in their careers as well as to create a considerable number of successful start-up businesses.

The Division of Cross-Disciplinary Research was abolished in 1992 and replaced by the new Division of Engineering Education and Centers (EEC), which combined the ERC Program with the Engineering Directorate’s education programs. EEC Division leadership remained stable until 2000, when new leadership at the Division level was introduced. Leadership at the Directorate level changed often during the period and included Joseph (“Joe”) Bordogna, who brought a strong emphasis on education and diversity, and Eugene (“Gene”) Wong, who restored the balance between research and education.

The ERC Program budget during the period 1994–2006 grew from $51.5M to 57.35M, a much slower rate of growth (11.4%) than in the prior period (1984–1993), as the Directorate began to distribute budget increases more broadly across the programs and divisions.[25]

This was the period when pre-proposals were introduced into the competition process and the Gen-1 ERCs were faced with the choice to recompete with a new and redirected vision, disband, or continue to operate as self-sufficient “graduated” ERCs.

The oversight role of the ERC Program was expanded to include three Earthquake Engineering Research Centers, originally funded in 1997 outside the ERC Program by the Division of Civil and Mechanical Systems. Gene Wong transferred these centers to the ERC Program in 1999 for improved oversight. In addition to the five regular ERC solicitations during this period there were two special ERC solicitations. One, released in FY 1998, focused on whether or not the ERC model could be used to successfully stimulate curriculum development for a then-nascent field of engineering, bioengineering[26]; and the second, released in FY 1995, was a partnership with the Semiconductor Research Corporation to jointly fund an ERC.[27] These resulted in the VaNTH ERC at Vanderbilt University and the Center for Environmentally Benign Semiconductor Manufacturing at the University of Arizona, respectively.

The ERC Program functioned with a culture of accountability for delivery results to benefit not just the scientific community but also industry and the broader society. The ERC Program’s post-award oversight system grew in scope and requirements in order to improve center-level performance, document outcomes and impacts, along with the number of centers. Reporting was viewed as a management tool by the ERC Program to provide the center directors and their reviewers with information to gauge their performance against their goals and program goals. Standardized reporting guidelines and site visit guidelines continued to be provided to the centers to ensure fairness across the centers and post-award performance criteria were developed for each stage of development of the centers over 10 years. NSF provided data benchmarks to the centers and the reviewers, from the database, to calibrate performance by Year and Class. 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.

Over time, as the reporting requirements became more explicit and detailed, in the minds of some they became more burdensome. See further discussion of this longstanding issue in Chapter 9, sections D and F.

An ERC Best Practices Manual was written by leaders of the ERCs, with chapters covering each major function in the operation of an ERC, to share successes and failures across the ERCs and beyond; and a website was created to house it: The outcomes and impacts of the centers in research, technology transfer, education and outreach, and infrastructure development were collected as “nuggets” and posted on this site. For several years they were also submitted to higher levels of NSF in response to the requirements of the Government Performance Reporting and Results Act of 1993 (GPRA).

Twenty-five new Gen-2 ERCs were created and three Gen-1 ERCs from the Class of 1985 were re-established during this period. The Gen-2 ERC key features below were published in the ERC Program Announcement that resulted in the funding of the Class of 1998 and represent the honing of the ERC construct a decade after its inception.[28] 

The original (FY 1998) Gen-2 ERC key features were:  

  • A guiding vision to produce advances in a complex, next-generation engineered system and a corresponding new generation of engineers with the depth and breadth needed for leadership throughout their careers in a global economy;
  • A strategic plan to realize the vision through the integration of research and education;
  • A research paradigm promoting synthesis of engineering, science, and other disciplines, spanning the continuum from discovery to proof-of-concept;
  • An educational paradigm enabling an integrative, systems-oriented intellectual environment and curriculum innovations for students at all levels, including undergraduates;
  • A trusted partnership with industry and other interested partners in planning, research, and education to strengthen the ERC and achieve a more effective flow of knowledge into innovation to benefit the Nation;
  • A cohesive team effort integrating diverse engineering and scientific backgrounds with industrial views, which also is diverse in gender, race, and ethnicity;
  • A dynamic, flexible program for outreach involving faculty and students from other universities and colleges to enhance the capacity of the ERC to fulfill its vision and develop connections with the community in its field;
  • Leadership, management, and an infrastructure of space along with experimental and enabling 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; and
  • A synergy of perspectives from science and engineering, research and education, academe and industry, yielding collective properties that are greater than each could achieve alone and greater than the current state-of-the-art and practice.

Honing the key features from the more generic definitions in Gen-1 into the more specific definitions above resulted from back-and-forth dialogue between the ERCs, their reviewers and reviewers of new proposals, the ERC Program, and the Assistant Director for Engineering regarding how to most effectively position an ERC for successful innovation and a broader impact. During these years, the features changed in the following ways:

Honed Features
  • The use of the word vision instead of goals to broaden the horizons of engineers beyond problem solving—i.e., a vision of a transformative systems technology goal to be achieved over the ten-year life of the ERC
  • Strategic research planning using a visual aid to structure the research on systems-level technology and show the pathway from fundamentals through enabling technology to systems integration
  • Improve definitions of engineered systems to help ERCs organize and integrate research focused on a complex engineered system with devices and components integrated to deliver functionality
  • Research from discovery to proof-of-concept in experimental systems-level testbeds built in the university laboratories or jointly in industrial laboratories by teams from industry and the ERC
  • Require that the system’s requirements drive the fundamental research and enabling technology—not the opposite, where basic research drives up from the bottom of the research plan “looking” for a system
  • Flexibility to be able to mount new research to deal with unforeseen barriers, stop unproductive research, and explore new opportunities.
Expanded Features
  • Expand the education mission to include outreach to non-partner universities and colleges and pre-college teachers and students
  • Further definition of ERC leadership teams to include deputy directors, leaders of each key feature (research thrust leaders, industrial collaboration, education) and management, plus Student Leadership Councils (SLCs), supported by Industrial Advisory Boards
  • Multi-institutional partnerships to broaden impacts and more inclusion of institutions serving populations underrepresented in engineering.
New Tools and Requirements Added
  • The ERC 3-Plane Strategic Research Plan Chart – A visualization tool used to structure the research program so the engineered system and its requirements and testbeds drive the research program from the top plane, guiding needed fundamental research (bottom plane) and ensuring needed enabling technology research and testbeds (middle plane).
  • Use of the SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) Analysis as an ERC management tool for post-award oversight; starting in 1997 IABs and, later, SLCs were required to prepare separate SWOT analyses to discuss in private with their site visit teams and the site visit teams were required to prepare a summary SWOT analysis for their report 
  • Supplements to ongoing ERCs in bioengineering to explore the role of translational research partnerships with small R&D firms in this high-risk field where larger member firms were reluctant to advance the technology through normal technology transfer modes
  • Preparation for financial self-sufficiency through required self-sufficiency plans starting in year 6, accompanied by phasing-down of financial support in the last two years of NSF support.

The language regarding an ERC’s vision was revised for the FY 2002 competition because the preponderance of proposals submitted to the FY 1999 competition reflected a focus on incremental technologies. As a result, only two new ERCs were funded in the Class of 2000, when there was support available for three times that number. The ERC Program team closely reviewed the language in that solicitation and revised it for the FY 2002 solicitation to attempt to elicit more ambitious visions. The new language was:

Long-term, strategic vision for an emerging engineered system with the potential to spawn a new or transform a current industry, service delivery system, or infrastructural element.

Either that language worked or a new generation of more visionary and ambitious engineers was ready to submit proposals, because Preston and the ERC team viewed the proposals in that competition as much more ambitious and exciting.

See Chapter 9, section C for a timeline of those changes and more as they appeared in ERC Program solicitations between 1993 and 2003.

3-B(a)    Technology Areas Funded in the Gen-2 ERCs

  • Biotechnology Process Engineering Center, Douglas Lauffenburger, Center Director, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); Class of 1994. (The only ERC to successfully recompete for a second full term of NSF support)
  • Engineered Biomaterials Engineering Research Center, Buddy Ratner, Center Director, University of Washington; Class of 1996
  • ERC for the Engineering of Living Tissues, Robert Nerem, Center Director, Georgia Institute of Technology in partnership with Emory University; Class of 1998
  • Center for Computer-Integrated Surgical Systems and Technology, Russell Taylor, Center Director, Johns Hopkins University in partnership with Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Carnegie Mellon University, the Johns Hopkins University Hospital (Boston), MIT, and Shady Side Hospital (Pittsburg); Class of 1998
  • Marine Bioproducts ERC, Oscar Zaborsky, Center Director, University of Hawaii at Manoa in partnership with the University of California at Berkeley; Class of 1998
  • VaNTH ERC for Bioengineering Educational Technologies, Robert Harris (MD/PhD), Center Director, Vanderbilt University in partnership with Northwestern University, the Harvard University-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, and the University of Texas at Austin; Class of 1999
  • ERC for Biomimetic MicroElectronic Systems, Mark Humayun (MD/Ph.D.), Center Director, University of Southern California–Keck School of Medicine and Viterbi School of Engineering in partnership with California Institute of Technology and the University of California at Santa Cruz; Class of 2003
  • Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center, Jay Keasling, Center Director, University of California, Berkeley, in partnership with Harvard University, MIT, the University of California at San Francisco; Class of 2006
  • Quality of Life Technology ERC, Takeo Kanade and Rory Cooper, co-Center Directors, Carnegie Mellon University in partnership with the University of Pittsburg; Class of 2006
  • Center for Collaborative Manufacturing Systems, James J. Solberg, Center Director, Purdue University; Class of 1994 (Class of 1985 ERC, recompeted for a full term of support but received a three-year award to test its ability to shift into the new vision)
  • ERC for Particle Science and Technology, Brij Moudgil, Center Director, University of Florida; Class of 1995
  • ERC for Environmentally Benign Semiconductor Manufacturing, Farhang Shadman, Center Director, University of Arizona in partnership with Arizona State University, Cornell University, MIT, Stanford, and the University of California at Berkeley (this ERC was jointly funded by the Semiconductor Research Corporation); Class of 1996
  • Center for Innovative Product Development, Warren Searing, Center Director, MIT; Class of 1996
  • Center for Reconfigurable Machining Systems, Yoram Koren, Center Director, University of Michigan; Class of 1996
  • Center for Advanced Engineering of Fibers and Films, Dan Edie, Center Director, Clemson University in partnership with MIT; Class of 1998
  • Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis, Bala Subramanian, Center Director, University of Kansas in partnership with University of Iowa and Washington University at St. Louis; Class of 2003
  • ERC for Structured Organic Particulate Systems, Fernando Muzzio, Center Director, Rutgers University in partnership with New Jersey Institute of Technology, Purdue University and the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez; Class of 2006
  • Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research (MCEER), George Lea, Center Director, the University at Buffalo in partnership with Cornell University, the University of Delaware, the University of Nevada at Reno, and the University of Southern California, as well as other collaborating institutions and private entities throughout the U.S.; Class of 1997
  • Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center (PEER), Jack Moehle, Center Director, the University of California at Berkeley in partnership with California Institute of Technology, Stanford University, the University of California at Davis, University of California at Irvine, University of California at Los Angeles, University of California at San Diego, the University of Southern California, the University of Washington, and nine affiliate institutions; Class of 1997
  • Mid-America Earthquake Center (MAE), Daniel Abrams, Center Director, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in partnership with Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Memphis, MIT, St. Louis University, Texas A&M University, and Washington University; Class of 1997
  • Center for Compact, Efficient Fluid Power, Kim Stelson, Center Director, University of Minnesota in partnership with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Purdue University, and Vanderbilt University; Class of 2006
  • ERC on Mid-Infrared Technologies for Health and the Environment, Claire Gmachl, Center Director, Princeton University in partnership with the City College of New York, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland-Baltimore, and Texas A&M University; Class of 2006
  • Institute for Systems Research, Steven Marcus, Center Director, University of Maryland and Harvard University; Class of 1994 (Class of 1985 ERC, recompeted for full term of support but received a three-year term to test its ability to shift into the new vision)
  • Center for Neuromorphic Systems Engineering, Pietro Perona, Center Director, California Institute of Technology, Class of 1995
  • Packaging Research Center, Rao Tummala, Center Director, Georgia Institute of Technology; Class of 1995
  • Integrated Media Systems Center, Max Nikias, Center Director, the University of Southern California; Class of 1996
  • Center for Power Electronic Systems, Fred Lee, Center Director, Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University in partnership with North Carolina A&T State University, University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and University of Wisconsin at Madison; Class of 1998
  • Center for Wireless Integrated MicroSystems, Kensall Wise, Center Director, the University of Michigan in partnership with Michigan State University and Michigan Technological University; Class of 2000
  • Center for Subsurface Sensing and Imaging Systems, Michael Silevitch, Center Director, Northeastern University in partnership with Boston University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; Class of 2000
  • ERC for Extreme Ultraviolet Science & Technology, Jorge Rocca, Center Director, Colorado State University in partnership with the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of California at Berkeley; Class of 2003
  • ERC for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere (CASA), David McLaughlin, Center Director, University of Massachusetts in partnership with Colorado State University, the University of Oklahoma, and the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez; Class of 2003.

Figure 3-2 depicts the Gen-2 ERCs.

Figure 3-2: The 31 Gen-2 ERCs in the Classes of 1994 through 2006

Between 1994 and 2006, these 31 centers formed the cluster of Gen-2 ERCs resulting from seven ERC solicitations and the transfer of the Earthquake Engineering ERCs (EERCs) to the ERC Program.

The third-year renewal review process also resulted in the pruning of three more Gen-2 ERCs: the Center for Innovative Product Development at MIT, Class of 1996; the Marine BioProcess ERC (MARBEC) at the University of Hawaii, Class of 1998; and the Environmentally Benign Catalysis ERC at the University of Kansas, Class of 2003. Two ERCs (Maryland and Purdue) from the Class of 1985 did not receive follow-on awards and were phased out of NSF support. Those centers that did not receive a recommendation for renewal largely failed because they did not address their proposed vision effectively and their academic partners failed to work as a team.

3-B(b)    Evolving to the Engineered Systems Concept in Gen-2 ERCs

The systems concept was strengthened by the Gen-2 ERCs and by the NSF ERC team. The language changed during that period from “engineering systems,” which is quite broad in interpretation and almost culture-focused, to “engineered system,” which implies a system, living or inanimate, that is modified through engineering to deliver improved functionality.

The guidance regarding an engineered system from NSF improved through experience in oversight of ongoing ERCs: “An engineered system is derived from a number of components, processes, and devices that are integrated together to serve a function. Analysis and modeling of the individual components of a system, without their integration into a complex engineered system, is not sufficient for the research program of an ERC.“[30] See, for an example of the origins of this concept in ERCs, the essay by Russell Taylor, director of the Center for Integrated Surgical Systems and Technologies.

In addition, the idea of proof-of-concept testbeds became more fully grounded in the Gen-2 ERCs, as the ERC construct itself had matured and as its impact on academic engineering began to change the role of engineering in academia from theory and modeling to extensions into explorations of technology to validate new technology concepts.

The result was new ERCs with strengthened engineered systems constructs in a broad range of fields from bioengineering and health systems, to infrastructure, manufacturing, and communications and information systems. For example, a collaborative, adaptive sensing system to improve the accuracy and speed of identification and warning of tornadoes and other low-altitude severe weather could not have been envisioned during the Gen-1 period, but was envisioned by the Gen-2 CASA ERC and tested successfully in real time in Oklahoma and Puerto Rico.

3-B(c)     Evolving Strategic Planning in Gen-2 ERCs

The strengthening of the systems construct contributed to the strengthening of the ERC strategic planning construct as they moved hand-in-hand intellectually. At the beginning of Gen-2, the ERCs were required to carry out strategic research planning and depict the flow of research from fundamental to testbed deliverables using milestone charts. These charts grew in complexity over time and were not very effective in showing the ERCs’ research strategy and how ideas moved from fundamentals to technology. Late in the 1990’s the ERC Program Leader Lynn Preston conceived of the “ERC 3-plane strategic planning chart,” a visualization tailored to the ERC construct. She worked with Fred Betz and Cheryl Cathey, ERC PDs at the time, to perfect how to show the flow of engineered systems requirements to stimulate needed fundamental research to address barriers, which fed into enabling technology testbeds, and then to systems-level testbeds. The first version released to the ERCs is shown in Figure 3-3, provided as an example below, which is the 3-plane chart of the Center for Neuromorphic Systems Engineering at CalTech, presented at the ERC Annual Meeting in 2001. The systems goal for that ERC was a swarm of robotic “noses” capable of detecting a pollutant and swarming to “attack” it. The 3-plane 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.”[31] 

This visual required a whole new way of thinking on the part of the ERCs and their reviewers. When effectively articulated it 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 and with industry and the reviewers. It is designed to be flexible and dynamic over time.

The chart represented a significant shift in the way engineers planned their research portfolios. Initially it met with mixed reviews by the ERC community, but was welcomed by its review teams and industrial supporters for the clarity of thought it required. Eventually its value and utility came to be recognized generally by ERC research teams and leaders.

Figure 3-3:  First Version of ERC 3-Plane Strategic Planning Chart, Depicting Systems Testbed at the CalTech Neuromorphic Systems ERC

3-B(d)    Engineering Education and the Future Workforce in Gen-2 ERCs

During this period, the ERC Program expanded its expectations regarding ERC education programs, having become better informed by industry’s assessment of the value of ERC students to their firms. Concerned that there was not enough time in an undergraduate academic year schedule to include an ERC experience, the Program began supporting Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) supplements to ongoing ERCs in 1993. At the request of Joseph Bordogna (then ENG AD), in 1993 the Program added education outreach programs to broaden the impact of ERCs on engineering education beyond the ERC host institutions. Mary Poats joined the ERC Program in 1990 and became the ERC Education Program Manager, responsible for these REU and outreach activities. Later in time, Esther Bolding took over the REU responsibility, while Mary concentrated on the Research Experiences for Teachers Program discussed below.

Inspired by ongoing ERCs, the Program began to encourage outreach to pre-college students in 1993 and required it by 2002. Encouraged by Louis Martin Vega, an Acting ENG AD, the ERC Program supported Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) supplements starting in 2000 to include outreach to pre-college teachers.

During this period, the ERC Program supported an experiment to see if the ERC model could be used to effectively focus a team on the development of new curricula and learning technologies to support an emerging field, in this case biotechnology. As an outcome of a solicitation,[32] the VaNTH ERC was funded. See the Education and Outreach Programs chapter, section 7-C(b).

Preston initiated the Student Leadership Councils (SLCs) as an outcome of attending numerous site visits, where she noticed that the ERC students were not assuming leadership roles as key members of ERC teams. Opportunities were lost to impact research and interactions with industry. Consequently, each ERC was required to set up an SLC and appoint officers. The SLCs were required to meet to provide input to the faculty leaders and industrial members about how to improve their ERC experiences. As a part of this process, they were required to prepare a SWOT analysis and present it to the annual or renewal site visit teams. Through this process, students gained leadership experience and knowledge about how to carry out surveys and analyze and present results—skills that would prove valuable in their future careers. The SLC became the social hub of the ERC as well, organizing student retreats, etc. Later in time, the ERCs were required to provide their SLCs with budgets to support these activities.

Starting in 1994, the ERC Program supported two assessments of the benefits of industrial involvement in ERCs to member firms and the impact of the ERC experience on job performance of ERC graduates. One, carried out by SRI International, focused on benefits to industry, and the other, carried out by Abt Associates, focused on documenting the performance of ERC graduates in industry and other employment arenas. The results of these studies were summarized by Linda Parker, who served as the ERC Program Evaluation Specialist as an NSF employee.[33] The SRI study found that interaction with ERCs provided up to 90+ percent of ERC member companies with a wide range of significant benefits, as shown in Figure 3-4[34]  These include access to new ideas and know-how (over 90%), matching a firm’s interests (over 90%), and impact on a firm’s competitive position (75%). While industry always encouraged the Program’s systems focus, a lower percentage of firms found direct benefit from that (67%).

Figure 3-4: Benefits to Member Firms from ERC Involvement (Source: SRI International)

The studies included results of interviews of faculty and students at each ERC, which were confidential to the ERC Program and to each center interviewed. Parker also reported the finding that 60 percent of the graduates had worked on engineered systems-based projects. While the overall student involvement with systems research or testbeds is impressive, Preston remembers that the individual surveys indicated that there were still a large number of students who had no idea what an engineered system was. This was one of her strongest motivators for devising the ERC 3-Plane Strategic Research Planning Chart.

3-B(e)    Development of Industrial Collaboration in Gen-2: An Industry/University/Government Partnership

During this period, the operating Gen-1 ERCs strengthened their industrial partnerships to optimize support and interaction in preparation for an eventual life without NSF support, while the younger Gen-2 centers built stronger initial partnerships based on the lessons learned from the Gen-1 ERCs and more informed guidance from NSF. Each ERC functioned with a membership agreement spelling out terms of support and benefits to industry and with an Industrial Liaison Officer (ILO), a staff member with industrial experience and familiarity with or experience in academia. The ILO’s role was to market their ERC to industry, negotiate the membership support, and serve as a liaison between industry personnel and faculty. The ILOs met together during the ERC Program annual meetings to share the best and most fruitful ways to interact with industry. In January 1999 they organized a two-day meeting of the ERC ILOs alone and another with their Industrial Advisory Board Chairs, the ILOs, and NSF in Arlington, Va. The findings of the ILO meeting pointed to the following, among other issues:

  • Industrial participation is increased through participation in:
    • Strategic planning, especially as research goals are clarified;
    • Decisions regarding systems-level testbeds; and
    • Company-specific projects.
  • ILOs can increase their effectiveness if they:
    • Shelter faculty from over-saturation by industry needs for short-term problem solving;
    • Add project management skills to their ERC; and
    • Serve as an intermediary with university lawyers regarding intellectual property.[35]

The findings of the IAB Chairs’ meeting pointed to the following:

  • ERCs must keep a clear perspective on the higher-level systems view and they must demonstrate proof-of-concept—not a ready-made solution, but one adaptable to many diverse needs.
  • ERCs need to establish themselves in the minds of mid- and higher-level company management as a key organization in the company’s strategic planning.
  • SWOT analyses are viewed as constructive in focusing on weaknesses and threats that demand attention, but they warned NSF that this identification should not lead to “punishment” of the center by NSF.[36]

Assessment results pointed to the need for stronger engagement with industry and strengthened benefits to industry. Over 90 percent of the member firms received benefits from involvement in ERCs and for 75 percent that involvement positively impacted the firms’ competitive position. Major benefits experienced by most firms were:

  • Hiring ERC students
  • Access to new ideas, know-how and technologies
  • Interaction with other ERC industrial partners
  • Access to state-of-the-art equipment and facilities.

Significant benefits experienced by fewer firms were:

  • Product/process development and improvement
  • Licenses to intellectual property developed at the ERC
  • Patents/copyrights developed from center results. [37]

As significant as these benefits were for industry, this period of time saw an overall decrease in R&D investments, both external and internal, by industry, as industrial R&D departments declined or ceased to operate in larger firms, mid-level production departments became the source of funding, and the role of small firms as the bearer of high-risk R&D investment increased.[38] “Prior to the nineteen eighties, firms employing more than 5,000 employees had consistently performed at least 85% of industrial R&D. In 1981, they accounted for 89%, with those employing more than 10,000 responsible for 84%. A decade later, those figures had dropped to 71% and 64%. Nearly 20% of industrial R&D in 1991 was conducted by firms employing fewer than a thousand people. By 1998, firms employing less than 5,000 accounted for a third of industrial R&D, and nearly half of that was done by those with fewer than 500 employees. In 2003, the share performed by firms with 10,000 or more employees stood at just under 55%, nearly thirty percentage points lower than at the start of the nineteen eighties.”[39]

In 1993, total ERC support to 18 ERCs from all sources was $142.6M, with 33 percent from NSF, 28 percent from industry, and 39 percent from other sources, primarily other federal government sources (23%).[40] Reflecting the trends above, by 2006, total support to 16 ERCs was $135.4M, with 43.1 percent from NSF, 11.4 percent from industry, and 45.5 percent from other sources, primarily other federal government sources (29.3%). The EERCs are not included in this data set for comparison purposes, as they were added to the ERC Program in 1999.[41]

Participation of firms in ERCs, represented by memberships, fell from 441 in 1993  (for 18 ERCs) to 240 by 2006 (for 16 ERCs), with the average number of firms involved in ERCs falling from 24 to 15.[42] This decline is most likely due to the decline in the role of large R&D departments with large budgets for investment in academic research that was occurring during this time period.

An example of one of the significant impacts of the government/industry/university partnerships was the joint investment in the Packaging ERC at Georgia Tech made by all three sectors. NSF provided base support, while industry and the university provided additional support and the Georgia Research Alliance (GRA) augmented that support. A study commissioned by the George Research Alliance estimated that the Packaging ERC returned a 10-fold increase in productivity to the state’s economy over the GRA investment of $32.5M between 1994 and 2004.[43]

3-B(f)     Program Assessments Funded

Preston was determined to carry out assessments of the performance of the ERCs. She and Marshall Lih decided to turn to experts in evaluation and assessment to get the job done, rather than committees at institutions like the NAE, where participants lacked evaluation expertise. They recruited an evaluation expert to the Program, Linda Parker, who had carried out an evaluation of the NSF REU Program for the Director’s Office. Linda served as EEC’s and ENG’s Evaluation Specialist from 1993 through 2007, when she retired from NSF. These assessments were funded through contracts and some were carried out by members of the ERC leadership teams themselves through program-level SWOT analyses. The studies are listed below and their impacts on the program are discussed in later sections of Chapter 3 and other chapters:

  • Job Performance of Graduated ERC Students (1996)[44]
  • Benefits and Outcomes of ERCs (1997)[45]
  • SWOT analysis of the ERC Program conducted by members of the ERC Leadership teams (1998) and a summary analysis prepared by Westat, Inc. in 2000.[46]
  • IAB Chairs’ input on membership in ERCs (1999)[47]
  • ILOs’ input on industrial collaboration in ERCs (1999)[48]
  • Documenting Center Graduation Paths (1999)[49]
  • Impact of ERCs on their home universities (2001)[50]
  • Impact of ERC interactions on industry, repeat study (2004)[51]
  • How the ERCs actually use the ERC-3 Plane Strategic Research Planning Chart (2004).[52]

3-B(g)    Lessons Learned and Challenges Ahead

The Gen-2 ERC phase was a highly productive period where the older Gen-1 ERCs reached their peak of productivity and the Gen-2 ERCs came up to speed in utilizing the ERC construct to strategically plan research, education, and innovation, based on collective lessons learned. It was a period when the ERC “Family” coalesced into a community designed to partner with industry to strengthen U.S. competitiveness and to partner across ERCs to continuously improve their ERCs and the ERC construct. The ERCs built a community of teamwork and collaboration within and across the centers and the ERC Annual Meetings became a model for community-building for other centers programs, such as the NSF Science and Technology Centers. Academic engineering research programs expanded in scope from basic principles to systems-driven technology research. ERCs proved that significant input to research areas from industry could enrich the academic research 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 led the NSF in post-award reporting, including data, in center-level financial management, and in post-award oversight through peer review. The formerly separate education and research cultures became more effectively integrated.

The ERC construct delivered the following lessons to the country:

  • To succeed in academe, cross-disciplinary team research needs to be motivated by a vision, strategically planned, and organized by a center construct, with sustained large-scale funding.
  • Focusing on engineered systems provides a broader vision for research programs that positions them to achieve major breakthroughs, and coupling with proof-of-concept testbeds at the ERC and in industry leads to product innovation.
  • The systems construct was embraced by the ERCs but had little long-term impact on their host universities,[53]  but it had a broader, yet to be documented impact on the larger community of academic engineers as the idea of an engineered system became an accepted part of academic engineering.
  • ERCs provide a platform for undergraduate and graduate education that positions its graduates to be more productive innovators in industry than traditional single-investigator trained graduates are.
  • ERCs return a broad set of benefits to member firms, from input to research directions, to participation in proof-of-concept testbeds, to the education of the next-generation engineering workforce with skills needed to succeed in industry.
  • The ERC Program has served as a proof-of-concept testbed for university administrations and faculty that demonstrated the feasibility of large-scale collaborative, interdisciplinary research and education and stimulated host universities to promote interdisciplinary research and education, if there are incentives in place to reward that effort.
  • Sustained leadership of the Division (Lih, 1987-2000) and Program (Preston, 1984-2014) provided a stable and creative environment where the staff were free to experiment to meet the challenges of the Program, learn from the past, plan for the future, and broadly champion the Program—important factors in its success.

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 domestic students to the field of engineering at the pre-college level; and
  • Partner with state and local government organizations devoted to economic development.

These challenges and others formed the basis for an analysis that led to the Gen-3 ERC construct.

3-C        Gen-3 (Class of 2008– )

3-C(a)    Planning

The Gen-2 ERCs, as described in the foregoing section, included those classes awarded from 1994 through 2006—a total of 31 ERCs. During that period, they had firmly established the model of an ERC and the mode of operation of the ERC Program beyond the “start-up” phase of the Program that the Gen-1 centers had represented. But the centers had also accumulated experiences and lessons learned that, along with insights from the ERC Program Directors, from the ERC leadership teams, and guidance from the ERC Program’s Committee of Visitors (COV), led to the recognition by 2004 that the Program would need to evolve in significant ways in its next phase to address the realities of a changing world in the 21st Century. Broadly speaking, the collective guidance voiced to Preston was: “The ERC Program has been enormously successful and now what are you going to do to make it even more successful in this century?” Preston presented the March 2004 COV’s appraisal of the ERC Program at the FY 2005 ERC Annual Meeting in November 2004,[54] which was that:

  • The ERC Program is a program of excellence for the Directorate for Engineering and all of NSF.
  • The ERC program and the ERCs have demonstrated outstanding performance, leadership, and impact.
  • Pre-award and post-award review processes are outstanding and models for all.
  • The ERC Program’s diversity policy should be emulated in ENG and more broadly throughout the rest of NSF.

During that briefing, she also presented the COV’s recommendations that Program leadership:

  • Work with a Blue Ribbon Panel to assess the effectiveness of the current model for the next 20 years.
  • Develop a vision for ERCs that will be as effective in the next 15 to 20 years as in the last 20 years.
  • Consider variable scales of effort to broaden the scope of technologies funded and support both large & small ERC teams.
  • Analyze the positive and negative impacts on universities and NSF of the emerging trend toward multi-university centers.
  • Continue the new ERC diversity policy with its explicit motivation for goals and performance targets.

Additionally, Preston’s November 2004 presentation examined four basic assumptions underlying the ERC Program and posed a number of related questions that would guide NSF staff and other planning participants in updating the ERC key features to position the Program to continue to be effective in the future.

Following the Annual Meeting, during 2005, Preston and Gary Gabriel, the Division Director at the time, decided not to use an external Blue Ribbon panel, as it would give potential ERC proposers on the panel an unfair competitive advantage when the solicitation was finally released. Rather, they decided to pursue an internal analysis and also consult influential reports from the NAE and the Council on Competitiveness on U.S. competitiveness in a global economy. [55] [56] [57]

The ERC Program team carried out the internal analyses of Program changes that might be warranted. Preston led the team, whose other members were ERC Program Directors John Hurt (EEC-ERC PD), Rajinder Khosla (part-time ERC PD from outside EEC who had been a VP for Research at Kodak), Larry Goldberg (part-time ERC PD from outside EEC), and Bruce Kramer (part-time ERC PD from outside EEC). The initial response of many of the ERC PDs was, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But Preston and higher-level leadership in the Engineering Directorate—in particular ENG Deputy AD, Michael Reischman—believed it was time to examine the Program’s goals in light of a changing and more global economy. Reischman encouraged the internal analysis approach.

The FY 2006 ERC Program Annual Meeting, held in November 2005, was a celebration of 20 years of ERC achievements and a look forward to the future.

Figure 3-5:  ERC Program Leader Lynn Preston addressing the November 2005 ERC Program Annual Meeting

The Program team crafted an agenda that would examine the status of ERC key features against the reality of increasing globalization of industry. Globalization permeated many of the breakout sessions and was brought into sharp focus in a presentation by Thomas Friedman, author of the bestselling book The World Is Flat![58]

Figure 3-6:  Thomas Friedman, author of The World Is Flat!, addressing the November 2005 ERC Program Annual Meeting

Internal NSF planning continued and culminated in the release of the Gen-3 ERC Program Solicitation in November 2006, with preliminary proposals due May 3, 2007 and full proposals due December 10, 2007.[59]

The new Gen-3 ERC key features focused heavily on innovation, technology translation, global perspectives, and partnerships with a variety of other research and educational institutions.

After the release of the solicitation, for future planning purposes the continuing evolution of the Gen-3 construct was examined at the FY 2008, November 2007 ERC Program Annual Meeting. A significant part of the meeting was devoted to a coordinated exercise involving all attendees in a “systematic, detailed analysis and assessment of the key features of the Gen-2 and Gen-3 ERCs.” With competition for the Class of 2008—the first Gen-3 ERCs—just getting underway, the aim of this group effort was to provide ERC program management with feedback on the key features of ERCs, as input for the second Gen-3 solicitation—which would be issued in 2008 for FY 2010 awards—and beyond. While this type of effort might have been carried out in the preceding year’s Annual Meeting, Preston decided that would be inappropriate, as it might give the ongoing ERCs and their colleagues (as participants in the analysis) an unfair advantage if they were to analyze the efficacy of the proposed Gen-3 ERC key features in advance of a competition. A summary of the process involved in that planning effort is here.

The process of transitioning from Gen-2 to Gen-3 ERCs thus spanned three years of planning and inputs from a wide range of sources both inside and outside NSF and the ERCs themselves. The focal point throughout, however, was on the “key features” that had become central to the definition of an ERC.

3-C(b)    Evolving the Key Features of Gen-2 into Gen-3 ERCs

The development of the Gen-3 ERC key features was informed by the lessons learned from Gen-2 ERCs, summarized in section 3-B(g), in light of an increasingly challenging global economy and the recommendations from a series of publications by the NAE and the Council on Competitiveness, among others noted in the preceding Gen-3 Planning section [3-C(a)]. Those publications pointed to the following challenges and opportunities:

  • Recognize that optimizing efficiency and product quality is not enough and increase the capacity of U.S. society for creative innovation.
  • Support a culture of innovation through a symbiotic relationship between research, commercialization, and life-long skill development.
  • Build bridges from science-based discovery to technological innovation by creating wholly new fields at the interface of science and engineering research.
  • Stimulate diverse domestic and international talent to pursue engineering careers in the U.S.
  • Transform engineering education to impact the U.S.’ capacity to create and exploit knowledge for technological innovation.
  • Produce engineering graduates who can compete in a global world where design and production efforts cross national borders.[60]

Some of these were not new challenges to the economy and the ERC Program had been evolving to address them through increased emphasis on transformational visions, experimentation with translational research partnerships, and innovation. However, it was clear that a new construct had to be created to more fully address the full scope of these challenges. The Gen-3 ERC construct, published in the FY 2007 ERC Solicitation, was designed to build on the proven strengths of the Gen-2 ERC construct with new features added to address these needs.[61]  

3-C(c)     New Key Features in Gen-3

The Gen-3 ERCs retained the following features from the traditional construct:

  • Guiding strategic vision for transforming engineered systems and the development of a globally competitive and diverse engineering workforce;
  • Strategic plans for research, education, and diversity to realize the vision;
  • Integrated, interdisciplinary research program—fundamental to systems research and proof-of-concept test beds;
  • Integrating research and education from precollege to practitioners (courses, course modules, new degree programs);
  • Partnership with industry/practitioners to formulate and evolve the strategic plan, strengthen research and education, and speed technology transfer;
  • Leadership, cohesive and diverse interdisciplinary team, and effective management;
  • Cross-institutional commitment to facilitate and foster the interdisciplinary culture and diversity of the ERC.

The new Gen-3 features were designed to:

  • Build a culture of innovation in academe;
  • Link 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 develop education experiences to develop creative, adaptive, and innovative engineers capable of success in a global economy, and include formative and summative assessment;
  • Form long-term partnerships with a few middle and high schools to infuse engineering concepts into the classroom and increase the enrollment of pre-college students in college-level engineering degree programs;
  • Build partnerships with academic, state, and local government and other 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 and other means.

The evolution of these new features will be explored in section 3-C(e).

3-C(d)    Technology Areas Funded in Gen-3 ERCs through 2014

  • ERC for Revolutionizing Metallic Biomaterials (RMB), Jagannathan Sankar, Center Director, North Carolina A&T University (HBCU[62]) in partnership with the University of Cincinnati and the University of Pittsburgh; Class of 2008
  • NSF Engineering Research Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE) Yoky Matsuoka, Center Director, University of Washington in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and San Diego State University; Class of 2011
  • Nanosystems ERC for Advanced Self-Powered Systems of Integrated Sensors and Technologies (ASSIST), Veena Misra, Center Director, North Carolina State University in partnership with Pennsylvania State University, Florida International University, and University of Virginia; Class of 2012
  • Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management (FREEDM) Systems Center, Alex Huang, Center Director,North Carolina State University in partnership with Arizona State University, Florida State University. Florida A&M University (HBCU), and the Missouri University of Science and Technology; Class of 2008
  • Smart Lighting ERC, Fred Schubert, Center Director, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in partnership with Boston University and the University of New Mexico; Class of 2008
  • ERC for Re-Inventing America’s Urban Water Infrastructure (ReNUWIt), Richard Luthy, Center Director, Stanford University in partnership with the University of California-Berkeley, Colorado School of Mines, and New Mexico State University; Class of 2011
  • ERC for Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies (QESST), Christiana Honsberg, Center Director, Arizona State University in partnership with the California Institute of Technology, the University of Delaware, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of New Mexico (co-funded with DOE); Class of 2011
  • ERC for Ultra-wide Area Resilient Electric Energy Transmission Networks (CURENT), Kevin Tomsovic, Center Director, University of Tennessee–Knoxville in partnership with Northeastern University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Tuskegee University (co-funded with DOE); Class of 2011
  • Center for Biorenewable Chemicals (CBiRC), Brent Shanks, Center Director, Iowa State University in partnership with the University of California-Irvine, the University of New Mexico, Pennsylvania State University, Rice University, the University of Virginia, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Class of2008
  • Nanosystems ERC for Nanomanufacturing Systems for Mobile Computing and Mobile Energy Technologies (NASCENT), Roger Bonnecaze, Center Director, the University of Texas at Austin in partnership with the University of New Mexico and the University of California, Berkeley; Class of 2012
  • Center for Integrated Access Networks (CIAN), Nasser Peyghambarian, Center Director, University of Arizona in partnership with the California Institute of Technology, Columbia University, Norfolk State University (HBCU), the Universities of California at Berkeley and San Diego, and the University of Southern California; Class of 2008
  • Nanosystems ERC for Translational Applications of Nanoscale Multiferroic Systems (TANMS), Greg Carman, Center Director, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in partnership with Cornell University, the University of California, Berkeley, and California State University, Northridge; Class of 2012.

Figure 3-7 depicts the 12 Gen-3 ERCs in the Classes of 2008 through 2012 and their locations.

Figure 3-7: The 12 Gen-3 ERCs in the Classes of 2008 through 2012

These 12 new Gen-3 ERCs created between 2008 and 2012 were joined by 3 new Gen-3 ERCs in the Class of 2015 and 4 more in the Class of 2017.[63] Those latter two classes will not be addressed because the history covers only the classes funded between 1985 and 2014, when Lynn Preston retired from NSF, as she was not engaged in the management of the ERC Program after that time.

3-C(e)     Evolution of New Key Features in Gen-3

i.         Shift from Technology Transfer to Innovation

The model of the movement of knowledge out of academic research to use in technology in industry during the time of Gen-1 and early Gen-2 ERCs was the classic linear model of technology transfer, enhanced through a collaborative environment. By enabling a collaborative environment between faculty, students, and industry, the ERC model facilitated a direct pathway of early stage technology to industry. The ERCs’ proof-of-concept testbeds were designed to shorten the time from an idea about a technology to its early demonstration in the research laboratory, readying it for transfer to industry where it would be further developed. NSF and industry funding for academic research were the “grease” that sped this transfer. However, as larger industrial R&D labs, where investment in academic high-risk/high payoff long-term research was the norm, began to shrink, industrial support to ERCs increasingly came from the loci in industry where such high-risk research was not the norm. ERCs could go only so far in their academic laboratories along the path to development. Increasingly that role was taken up by early stage start-up firms developed by university faculty or graduates (or at times even students) based on ERC-generated advances. These firms were funded by the venture capital industry, local government-supported innovation catalysts, or small R&D firms funded by the SBIR program. They began to take on more of the high-risk research and development needed to prove the viability of an innovation. Their role became characterized as helping to bridge the “Valley of Death” or the “Valley of the Shadow of Death,” as Preston preferred to label it.

The idea of a valley of death where innovations could die without sufficient risk capital was first presented to the ERC Program staff at NSF by Angus Kingon.[64] Figure 3-8 depicts that “valley” and how Gen-2 and Gen-3 ERCs and SBIR awards are positioned to help technology ideas cross the valley. The ERC Program collaborated with the SBIR program, starting in 2006, to jointly support selected awardees through supplementary awards to speed that transfer.

Figure 3-8: The “Valley of the Shadow of Death” is the area of the innovation spectrum in which ERCs help to bridge the gap between academic research and industrial development.

Preston turned the development of this part of the ERC Program over to Program Director Deborah Jackson, who worked with the ERCs’ Industrial Liaison Officers to deepen its meaning in the ERCs—arriving at its characterization as the “innovation ecosystem.”[65] Refer to Chapter 6, Sections 6-E(d) and (e) for further discussion.

ii.   Translational Research

The initial construct for Gen-3 ERCs to bridge the gap was partnerships with small R&D firms within the ERC’s research program. Through dialogue with the ongoing ERCs at the first ERC Annual Meeting to include Gen-3 ERCs, it became apparent that this construct had to be revised, since both the university and industry members had first rights of refusal for intellectual property (IP) developed in the ERC. If a small firm developed such IP as a result of an ERC-funded collaborative project, the firm would not have the first rights to the IP. Preston and Jackson worked with the NSF lawyers and NSF Policy Office to craft a new policy. By the FY 2013 Gen-3 ERC solicitation, the shift was evident:

“ERC Innovation Ecosystem….new features:

  • Opportunities for large member firms or small member or small non-member firms to develop IP generated by the ERC, if the ERC member firms exercise the first right of refusal to license this IP.”[66]  

The innovation ecosystem shift will be discussed further in Section 6-E(e).

iii.  Partnerships with State and Local Organizations Dedicated to Innovation and Entrepreneurship

The Gen-3 construct included partnerships with state and local government organizations designed to stimulate innovation and entrepreneurship, recognizing the role of faculty-led and other small firms in innovation. Some of the winning proposals had strong state government-level partnerships already in place; most of the proposals failed to understand the role of these organization in entrepreneurship and merely listed them. Universities that already had their own programs of this type were advantaged in the competitions.

iv.   Strategic Design of Education Programs

The Gen-3 construct included a new idea: augment the industry/university culture of an ERC by purposefully designing an educational experience to prepare students with additional characteristics such as creativity, innovation, etc. “The ERC will have a strategically designed university education plan with a driving hypothesis of how to nurture and develop graduates who are adaptive and creative innovators with the capacity to advance fundamental knowledge and create and exploit that knowledge to advance innovation in a global economy.”[67] This too was a concept that challenged the ERCs and the engineering community. Clearly, ERC graduates had been more successful in innovation in industry; but exactly why had not been clear. The purpose was essentially for an ERC team to develop a design hypothesis for the ERC education experience and determine through formative and summative assessment if it made a positive difference. That construct required the inclusion of education researchers on the ERCs’ teams, as these academics, or sometimes contractors, had the skill set needed to set up such a program and assess its impact. By the FY 2013 solicitation, the intent was the same but the wording had to be changed from “design hypothesis” to “desired characteristics and skill sets” to communicate more effectively with the engineering community. The NC State FREEDM ERC developed a very useful way of dealing with this requirement—the ERC Portfolio, through which ERC graduate students undertook professional development experiences in addition to research experiences to better prepare them for leadership roles in the future. Results are discussed in Chapter 7, Section 7-D(d).

v.    Long-term Partnerships for Pre-college Education

There were a few exemplar pre-college education models among the Gen-2 ERCs. Among those were the programs in the two University of Southern California ERCs, where long-term partnerships were established with a nearby middle school to engage young students in research projects of their own design, and progressively engage those students throughout their middle and high school careers until they matriculated in college. One was the STAR program, developed by Professor Roberta Diaz Brinton to engage students in early-stage pharmacology research, which won national acclaim. STAR was integrated into the BMES ERC, with content now focused on biomedical engineering. Based on this successful program and Preston’s concerns that many of the partners in the ongoing ERC pre-college programs seemed to be ad hoc, with few long-term relationships built for students or teachers, she consulted with Mary Poats, the Research Experiences for Teachers PD, and the ERC pre-college education coordinators and redesigned the pre-college education program to require:

  • Long-term partnerships (middle through high school) with institutions committed to including engineering concepts in the pre-college classroom;
  • Involve pre-college teachers in the ERC to develop course modules on engineering topics;
  • Include pre-college students in the ERC’s education program and offer Young Scholar research opportunities to carry out research in the ERC’s laboratories with ERC students; and  
  • Involve ERC faculty and students in these programs.[68]

Instead of relying on supplements to support the RET programs, the Gen-3 ERCs were required to support those programs from their base budgets, which were higher at start-up (at $3.25M[69]) than Gen-2 [$2.5M[70]] ERCs received because of this and other new Gen-3 features.

vi.   Cross-cultural Partnerships with Foreign Universities

Gen-3 ERCs enabled partnerships with foreign universities to allow research and learning collaboration that would provide U.S. engineering graduates with experiences in cultures outside the United States, in preparation for leadership roles in a global economy. The U.S. would bear the costs for domestic students and the foreign university would bear the costs for its students. The most effective partnership was carried out between the ERC for Revolutionary Metallic Biomaterials (RMB) based at North Carolina A&T State University (NCA&T) and the University of Hannover in Germany. The goal was to develop biodegradable medical implants. The German partner had the requisite experience with clinical use of magnesium alloys in stents, to complement the materials engineering expertise at NCA&T, the biomedical engineering expertise at the University of Pittsburg, and microelectronic sensing expertise at Ohio State University (additional RMB partners). Frank Witte, faculty member at the Hannover Medical School, attended the ERC’s pre-award site visit, and upon award, continued to actively participate throughout the award. Witte also attended some ERC Program Annual Meetings. His students came to study at the ERC and ERC students went to his laboratories. The complementarity of the expertise made for a strong partnership. There were issues to work out about the extra cost of hosting NCA&T REU students in his laboratories, as German universities are not used to undergraduates working in research laboratories. They quickly understood this and assigned staff to mentor the students and came up with the necessary additional funds.

vii. Partnerships with Industry

The core foundation of Gen-3 ERCs, like all previous ERCs, was an active partnership with member firms. During this time (2012) the distribution of member firms across sizes was: 48 percent large, 9 percent medium, and 43 percent small.[71] Industrial support was now 11 percent of total ERC support, reflecting the lower membership fees, associated with a larger number of small firms. For comparison, in the Gen-1 and Gen-2 periods industrial support was around 33 percent of total support.

Overall, the Gen-3 construct had a broad impact because of its focus on stimulating innovation by extending the academic model to include partnerships with small firms to speed product development and the goal to strategically plan education to “build in” desired features in graduates, such as ability to advance technology, work in teams, effectively communicate, and understand industrial practice. Within NSF, innovation became an accepted goal for the Directorate for Engineering with the creation of the Partnerships for Innovation Program and began to spread throughout the NSF as a broader goal for the NSF as a whole, including the creation of the Innovation Core (I-Corp) Initiative. “I-Corp prepares scientists and engineers to extend their focus beyond the university laboratory, and accelerates the economic and societal benefits of NSF-funded, basic-research projects that are ready to move toward commercialization. Through I-Corps, NSF grantees learn to identify valuable product opportunities that can emerge from academic research, and gain skills in entrepreneurship through training in customer discovery and guidance from established entrepreneurs”[72]

viii. Program Assessments

There were three major assessments of the ERCs during this period that also contributed to the Gen-3 construct and to the oversight and management of Gen-2 and Gen-3 ERCs.

A study of Asian and European centers inspired by the ERC Program provided some calibration across nations as well as guidance in designing the next generation of ERCs. The overall finding was that the U.S. ERC Program was the only one to require all three components of the construct—research, technology advancement, and education. However, the funding was lower in the U.S. than abroad for less complex centers. Most foreign centers were not university based, and therefore had less student involvement. Industry collaboration was a key component, some working at a distance —especially in the case of the Japanese Centers of Excellence—and some worked much more closely with industry but often without membership fees, and mostly on a contractual basis. There was little or no emphasis on gender or ethnic/racial diversity and pre-college outreach was largely not within their scope.[73]

A compilation of ERC-generated commercial products provided theretofore unavailable information on the processes, products, and start-up firms generated by ERCs since the 1980s. The methodology used was to interview personnel in the centers, the start-up firms, and end users of the ERC-generated technologies, as well as searching publicly available databases. The overall finding was that for the roughly $1B invested by the ERC Program in 48 ERCs between 1985 and 2009, the total downstream market value of ERC-generated innovations and firms was well into the tens of billions of dollars at a minimum, as many innovations were just at the cusp of entry to the marketplace at that time.[74]

During this period, Preston surveyed the graduated ERCs to gain an assessment of the viability of the ERC construct once NSF support ceases. Responses were low, so she decided to support a formal study. The study was carried out by Courtland Lewis, of SciTech Communications, and James E. Williams, Jr, who had been the Executive Director of the Data Storage Systems Center at CMU. The results were robust, most likely because the center leaders were more comfortable talking with Williams, who was “one of them.” The results indicated that the ERC construct was viable after graduation: 82 percent of the 27 graduated ERCs continued to exist on campus with ERC-like characteristics, with a response rate well over 70 percent. Eighty to 90 percent maintained the integration of research, education, and industrial collaboration; 70 percent still employed proof-of-concept testbeds, had strong industrial guidance and support, and their university’s commitments for support. Sixty-seven percent continued to conduct pre-college programs.[75]

Preston’s plan was to formally assess the impact of the Gen-3 model on the core ERC construct, academe, and industry before embarking on revisions to the Gen-3 model or a Gen-4. However, she retired from NSF before Gen-3 ERC had a sufficient number of performance years and subsequent managers at NSF did not undertake that assessment. Rather, in 2014 the AD for ENG at the time, Pramod Khargonekar, decided to commission the NAE to recommend characteristics for the fourth generation of ERCs and assess the need for revisions in program management.[76]

1 2014 is defined as the end-point of Gen-3 for the purposes of this history, as the Class of 2012 was the last class that co-author and former ERC Program Leader Lynn Preston was involved with before she retired from NSF in 2014. The next class awarded was in 2015.

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


4 Belanger, Dian Olson (1997). Enabling American Innovation, Engineering and the National Science Foundation. West Lafayette, IN, Purdue University Press. p. 219

5 NSF’s 1991 Annual Report to Congress can be found at and the reference to the budget of the Directorate for Engineering is in Appendix B, Patents and Financial Tables.

6 NSF (1984). Program Announcement, Engineering Research Centers, Fiscal Year 1985. Directorate for Engineering. National Science Foundation, April 1984, p. 1.

7 Lewis G. Mayfield (1987). NSF’s Engineering Research Center Program: How it developed. Engineering Education, American Association for Engineering Education, November 1987, p. 130. (See abstract at

8 GAO (1988). Engineering Research Centers:  NSF Program Management and Industry Sponsorship. Report to Congressional Requesters (August 1988). Report No. GAO/RCED-88-177. Washington, D.C.: General Accounting Office, p. 22.

9 National Research Council (1986). Systems Aspects of Cross-Disciplinary Research. Cross-Disciplinary Engineering Research Committee. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1986.

10 Ibid., p 10-11.

11 Ibid. p. 1.

12 GAO (1988). Op cit. p. 24.

13 National Research Council (1987). Management of Technology, the Hidden Competitive Advantage. Cross Disciplinary Engineering Research Committee, Task Force on Management of Technology. Washington, DC: National Academy of Engineering.

14 K–12 education had long been of interest to NSF, in particular through its Education and Human Resources Directorate, but it had never been a part of the activities of NSF research centers. 

15 GAO, op. cit., pp. 30-33.

16 Ibid.

17 Preston, Lynn and Ronald G. Havelock (1988). Knowledge and Technology Transfer from NSF-supported Centers and Laboratories to Smaller Businesses: Report to the U.S. Congress from the National Science Foundation. Washington, D.C.: National Science Foundation.

18 National Academy of Engineering (1989). Assessment of the National Science Foundation’s Engineering Research Centers Program: A Report for the National Science Foundation by the National Academy of Engineering. Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Engineering.

19 GAO, op. cit., pp. 1-2.

20 Preston and Havelock, op. cit. p. 1.

21 NAE, op. cit. pp. 2-3.

22 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.

23 Costerton, William (1996). “Profile of an ‘Ideal’ ERC Director.” Unpublished essay, December 4, 1996.

24 Curral, op. cit.

25 During that same period, NSF’s total budget increased 88%, compared to a 104% increase between 1984 and 1993—also a slowdown in budget growth, but not as great a slowing as in the ERC Program’s budget. (See

26 NSF (1998). An Engineering Research Center for Bioengineering Educational Technology. National Science Foundation. NSF 98-68.

27 NSF (1995). Program Announcement: Partnership in Engineering Research Centers. National Science Foundation and the Semiconductor Research Corporation, NSF 95-77.

28 NSF (1997). Program Announcement: Engineering Research Centers—Partnerships with Industry and Academe for Next-Generation Advances in Knowledge, Technology and Education. Directorate for Engineering, National Science Foundation, NSF 97-5, p. 1.

29 The Earthquake Engineering Research Centers (EERCs) were established under a special program in 1997 to further knowledge and technology for earthquake hazard mitigation. They were placed under the oversight of the ERC Program in 1999.

30 NSF97-5. p. 1.

31 Currall, op. cit., p. 141.

32 NSF (1998). Op. cit.

33 Parker, Linda (1997). The Engineering Research Centers (ERC) Program: An Assessment of Benefits and Outcomes (NSF 98-40). Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation, p. i.

34 Rosssner, J. David, David W. Chaney, and H.R. Coward (2004). Impact on Industry of Interactions with Engineering Research Centers – Repeat Study. Arlington, VA: SRI International.

35 ERC Industrial Liaison Meeting – Summary.(January 22, 1999),pp. 6-7.

36 ERC Industrial Advisory Board Chairs’ Meeting – Summary (January 21, 1999), pp. 1-4. (listed at

37 Rosssner, J. David, David W. Chaney, and H.R. Coward (2004). Op. cit., pp. 35-37.

38 Usselman, Steven W. (2013). “Research and Development in the United States Since 1900: An Interpretive History,” Economic History Workshop, Yale University, November 11, 2013. Pp. 33-36.

39 Ibid., p. 32

40 QRC (1999). Engineering Research Centers Program Leverage History 1985-1998.

41 ICF international (2006). 2006_All_Slides_ERC summary data package, slide 15.

42 QRC, op. cit. and ICF International, op. cit., Slide 13.

43 Georgia Research Alliance (2004). The Economic Impact on Georgia of Georgia Tech’s Packaging Research Center. Atlanta, Georgia: Georgia Research Alliance and SRI International, p. 1.

44 ABT Associates (1996). Job Performance of Graduate Engineers Who Participated in the NSF Engineering Research Centers (ERC) Program. Bethesda, MD. (Unpublished contractor report. Results are summarized in Parker, op cit.

45 Parker, op. cit.

46 Westat (2000). SWOT Followup: Examination of the ERC Program by Center Staff and Center Funding Status, June 2000. Rockville, MD: Westat Inc.

47 ERC Industrial Advisory Board Chairs’ Meeting – Summary, op. cit.

48 ERC Industrial Liaison Meeting – Summary, op. cit.

49 Ailes, Catherine P., J. David Roessner, and H. Roberts Coward (1999). Documenting Center Graduation Paths – Confidential Report to NSF/ERC Program Management, First Year Report. Arlington, VA.: SRI International.

50 Ailes, Catherine P., Irwin Feller, H. Robert Coward (2001). The Impact of Engineering Research Centers on Institutional and Cultural Change in Participating Universities. Arlington, VA: SRI International, Science and Technology Policy Program.

51 Roessner, J. David et al., op. cit.

52 Currall, Steven C., Toby E. Stuart, Sara Jansen Perry, and Emily M. Hunter (2007). Engineering Innovation: Strategic Planning in National Science Foundation-Funded Engineering Research Centers, Report to the National Science Foundation.

53 Ailes et al. (2001), op. cit.

54 Preston, Lynn (2004). Plenary presentation at the ERC Program Annual Meeting, November 18, 2004, Bethesda, Maryland.

55 National Academy of Engineering (2004). The Engineer of 2020: Visions of Engineering in the New Century. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

56 National Academy of Engineering (2005). Educating the Engineer of 2020: Adapting Engineering Education to the New Century. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

57 Council on Competitiveness (2005). Innovate America: National Innovation Initiative Final Report. Washington, DC: Council on Competitiveness.

58 Friedman, Thomas L. (2005). The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

59 NSF (2006). Engineering Research Centers (ERC): Partnerships in Transforming Research, Education and Technology. Program Solicitation NSF 07-521, posted November 13, 2006.

60 NSF 2006, op. cit., p. 6.

61 Ibid.

62 HBCU=Historically Black Colleges and Universities

63 Information about those seven Gen-3 ERCs can be found at (2015) and (2017)

64 Marczewski, R.W. 1997. Bridging the virtual valley of death for technology. R&D Scientist, 11(2):11.

65 Jackson, Deborah (2011). What Is an Innovation Ecosystem? White paper available at .

66 NSF (2013). Gen-3 Engineering Research Centers (ERC): Partnerships in Transforming Research, Education and Technology. Program Solicitation NSF 13-560.

67 NSF (2009). Engineering Research Centers (ERC) Partnerships in Transforming Research, Education and Technology. Program Solicitation. NSF 09-545.

68 Ibid.

69 Ibid., p.18

70 NSF (2002). Engineering Research Centers (ERC), Partnerships in Transforming Research, Education and Technology. Program Solicitation NSF 02-24, p. 10.

71 Preston, Lynn (2012). “Engineering Research Centers: Transformational Partnerships in Research, Education and Innovation” (slide 9). Presented at the 2012 ERC Program Annual Meeting.


73 Lal, Bhavya, Craig Boardman, Nate Deshmukh, Jamie Link, and Stephanie Shipp (200&). Designing the Next Generation of NSF Engineering Research Centers:  Insights from Worldwide Practice. Washington, DC: Science and Technology Policy Institute, pp. 51-54.

74 Lewis, Courtland S. (2010). Engineering Research Centers – Innovations: ERC-Generated Commercialized Products, Processes, and Startups. Melbourne, FL:  SciTech Communications LLC. Overview.

75 Lewis, Courtland S. and James E. Williams, Jr. (2010). Post-Graduation Status of National Science Foundation Engineering Research Centers, a Report of a Survey of Graduated ERCs. Melbourne, FL: SciTech Communications, LLC., p. 1.

76 National Academy of Engineering (2017). A New Vision for Center-Based Engineering Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.