- The NNIN has been (since 2010) essentially level-funded at $16M/yr for the whole program, and there are no indications that this will change in the foreseeable future. (Inflation erodes the value of that sum as well over time.) The NNIN serves approximately 6000 users per year (with turnover of about 2200 users/yr). For perspective, a truly cutting edge transmission electron microscope, one instrument, costs about $8M. The idea that the NNIN program can directly create bleeding edge shared research hardware across the nation is misguided.
- For comparison, the US DOE has five nano centers. The typical budget for each one is about $20M/yr. Each nano center can handle around 450 users/yr. Note that these nano centers are very different things than NNIN sites - they do not charge user fees, and they are co-located with some truly unique characterization facilities (synchrotrons, neutron sources). Still, the DOE is spending seventeen times as much per user per year in their program as the NNIN.
- Even the DOE, with their much larger investment, doesn't really know how to handle "recapitalization". That is, there was money available to buy cutting edge tools to set up their centers initially, but there is no clear, sustainable financial path to be able to replace aging instrumentation. This is exactly the same problem faced by essentially every research university in the US. Welcome to the party.
- Along those lines: As far as I can tell (and please correct me if I'm wrong about this!), every US federal granting program intended to have a component associated with increasing shared research infrastructure at universities (this includes the NSF MRI program, MRSEC, STC, ERC, CCI; DOE instrumentation grants, DOE centers like EFRCs, DOD equipment programs like DURIPs) is either level-funded or facing declining funding levels. Programs like these often favor acquisition of new, unusual tools over standard "bread-and-butter" as well. Universities are going to have to rely increasingly on internal investment to acquire/replace instrumentation. Given that there is already considerable resentment/concern about perceived stratification of research universities into "haves" and "have-nots", it's hard to see how this is going to get much better any time soon.
- To potential donors who are really interested in the problem of graduate (and advanced undergrad) science and engineering hands-on education: PLEASE consider this situation. A consortium of donors who raised, say, $300M in an endowment could support the equivalent of the NNIN on the investment returns for decades to come. This can have an impact on thousands of students/postdocs per year, for years at a time. The idea that this is something of a return to the medieval system of rich patrons supporting the sciences is distressing. However, given the constraints of government finances and the enormous sums of money out there in the hands of some brilliant, tech-savvy people who appreciate the importance of an educated workforce, I hope someone will take this possibility seriously. To put this in further perspective: I heard on the radio yesterday that the college athletics complex being built at Texas A&M University costs $400M. Think about that. A university athletic booster organization was able to raise that kind of money for something as narrowly focused (sorry, Aggies, but you know it's true).
Wednesday, August 20, 2014
Science and engineering research infrastructure - quo vadis?
I've returned from the NSF's workshop regarding the successor program to the NNIN. While there, I learned a few interesting things, and I want to point out a serious issue facing science and engineering education and research (at least in the US).
Posted by Douglas Natelson at 1:13 PM