Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The end of the National Nano Infrastructure Network? Federal support for shared facilities.

The National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network is, as their page says, "an integrated networked partnership of user facilities, supported by the National Science Foundation, serving the needs of nanoscale science, engineering and technology".  Basically, the NNIN has been a mechanism for establishing nodes of excellence at sites around the US, where people could travel to use equipment and capabilities (high resolution transmission electron microscopy; sophisticated wafer-scale electron beam lithography; deep etching) that they lack at their home institutions.  Crucially, these shared facilities are supported by skilled technical staff that can train users, work with users to develop processes, perform fee-for-service work on occasion, etc.  The most famous sites are the Stanford Nanofab Facility and the Cornell Nanofab.  Over the years, the NNIN has been instrumental in an enormous amount of research progress.  Note that this effort is distinct from Major User Facilities (such as synchrotrons, neutron sources, etc).

This year, there was a competition for a Next Generation NNIN - the call is here.  The idea was very much to broaden the network into characterization as well as fabrication, and to reach new, growing communities of users in areas like bio, the environment, earth sciences/geo.  After a proposal process that boiled down to two teams (one with 18 universities; one with 20), very extensive full proposals, reverse site visits, written responses to reverse site visits and reviews, etc., the NSF decided not to make an award.  It would appear that there will be another call of some kind issued in fall, 2014.  For now, what this means is that the NNIN is ending.  Cornell, Stanford, and the other sites face major cuts in funding for staff and support for external users.  (Full disclosure:  I was the Rice rep on one of the teams.)

This whole issue is very complex, but it raises a number of questions that would benefit from a discussion in the community.  What should be the pathway to federal support for shared facilities and staffing, particularly tools and techniques that would be prohibitively expensive for individual universities to support via internal funds?  Should there be federal support for this?  Should it come from NSF?  How can we have a stable, sustained level of research infrastructure, including staffing, that serves the broad scientific community, in an era when funding is squeezed ever more tightly?  If the burden is shifting more toward individual universities having to support shared infrastructure basically with internal funding and user fees, what impact will that have?  Comment is invited.

UPDATE:  Here is a story that Science is running regarding the decision, or lack thereof. 


Melissa Eblen-Zayas said...

As someone at a primarily undergraduate institution, shared facilities and staffing like the NNIN are extremely valuable. Shifting away from that model seems like a huge loss.

Anonymous said...

There is a Joint institute of advanced materials (ORNL and UT Knoxville) with less lithographic stuff, but with STEM, scanning probe etc.
While much more limited in scale (and I'm not sure how sustainable in terms of funding:), it does charge user fees. But it also has a commitment from the University - for as long as it lasts.

While I doubt this model is viable in the long term, having user fees to offset costs at these facilities is not a priori a bad thing. After all it costs money. Single PIs can't afford to have the equipment, but can afford (budget for) reasonable fees.
Nevertheless, for these fees to be reasonable, some external source of funding (NSF/DOE/local univ/...) is necessary.

Long story to get to the take home message: fees should not necessarily be out of the question.
Added advantage: people think longer before embarking on something risky as they have skin in the game.

Douglas Natelson said...

Anon, just to be clear: All places charge user fees already. At Rice, we charge user fees for internal academic users. External academic users get charged essentially the same thing + overhead costs. External industrial users are charged a rate comparable to what they would pay at a commercial lab (because Fed rules prevent universities from undercutting commercial labs). No one gets to use anything for free!

The point is, while fees can often cover maintenance costs, covering technical staff salaries through affordable fees is very hard, and on top-end equipment even maintenance contracts are hard to meet. For example: The annual maintenance cost (no staff!) for an aberration-corrected TEM can be as high as $300K.

Cornell, Stanford, and the others have been using NNIN resources as an essential supplement. That's how they have been able to have as much staff and as many fancy tools.

Anonymous said...

Do you know why the NSF declined to make an award this year?

Douglas Natelson said...

Anon@7:37, in short, no. It sounds like there is ambivalence within NSF about what they want to do on this topic.

Anonymous said...

Same anon as 6:07:

Okay, I obviously did not know. (I do feel you were a bit pounding on my remarks though - after all we appear to agree despite incomplete background knowledge on my side...)

Question I then would like to raise is: isn't this what national lab user facilities are for? Specifically shouldn't this be incorporated in e.g. nanocenters (CNM Argone, CNMS ORNL, ...)? There is an infrastructure for nano-"stuff".
I tihnk the CNMS (and "SHARE") at ORNL has about the same capabilities that you describe.
If Universities deem that these facilities are too far away, then it's on them to provide funding.
This may seem hard, but why are there two mechanisms through which federal funding flows down for user facilities with similar capabilities? (but this may be more of a question the politicians should answer...)

Anonymous said...

sorry for the typo's: Argonne, think

Anonymous said...

(Different Anon than other poster)

The DOE user facilities are great, but they generally focus on a significantly different subset of users and projects. Having worked at both a NNIN center and a DOE user center the differences in the nature of the facilities is especially aparent, the DOE labs large and lethargic bureaucracy that requires high impact research with a clear path to success to become a user, while NNIN centers require a budget and a heartbeat. The NNIN centers allow for the high risk high reward research while the DOE centers allow for the carefully done high impact incremental research.

Douglas Natelson said...

First anon, sorry - I didn't mean to convey any particular tone.

Different anon, thanks - that's basically what I was going to write. The DOE nanocenters (there are only a handful, all co-located at national labs; Brookhaven, Oak Ridge, Los Alamos/Sandia, Lawrence Berkeley, Argonne) all have a proposal process and ideally want you to be collaborating with Lab scientists on-site. On some level, this helps DOE justify both having the centers (as being central to the DOE lab missions) and helps boost the scientific connectedness of the lab scientists.

The NNIN sites traditionally are much more open. You don't need to complete a proposal, you don't have to be collaborating with anyone; you just need to be able to pay the fees to access the equipment and staff.

As an added irony: within 36 hours of finding out about the NNIN decision, I was asked by two different NSF programs to review grant proposals for them.

Anonymous said...

(First anon)

Doug, accepted.

So, if the NNIN system falls through, wouldn't that be a reason to propose to try to integrate with DOE user centers in the NNIN way of operating: freedom and fees?

And I have successfully written numerous proposals to various DOE nanocenters, and in my opinion the clear path to success is not at all necessary - in fact these proposals can be written in a half hour on Friday afternoon. In essence the scientific quality review (as measured by a perceived (!) probability for success and impact...) to me appears a farce for these user proposals.

I agree about the bureaucracy, but find this quite limited for users. The biggest part is always some training, but safety and knowing how to operate equipment is defensible.

Anyway, I do hope the NNIN system remains in existence: there is clearly a need from the community, and I'm not sure that current nanocenter infrastructure has enough capacity to sustain an influx of users upon NNIN failure.

Anonymous said...

(first anon),
rereading Doug's response, I think I fell in the trap of mistaking emphasis for attitude - a common thing when communication does not include body language, such as on the internet.

So sorry from my side as well.

JonB said...

Probably the mistake with the NNIN proposal was the broadening of the remit to characterization. Having worked in electron microscopy for 15 years, most of the characterization needs can be met with relatively simple and cheap instruments. For example, bright-field imaging and diffraction patterns account for about 80% of the TEM work we do here in Cambridge materials in the UK, including nano structured materials (a lot of people just want a few pretty pictures). Further, the characterization field is not exactly bursting with lots of patenting opportunities, so the lack of IPR potential might have soured the proposal. One last point is that aberration-corrected EM is proving to be a difficult tool to justify the expense. Few materials can be studied without beam-damage and a lot of labs are looking for any possible way to recoup money on the exorbitant service contract prices. If the rumour was out that X university wanted in on NNIN to pay for a bit of equipment used for less than 5% of characterization needs then funding agencies are going to get a bit nervous.

JohnM said...

I write as a member of the Executive Committee for two NSF-funded centers.

Why not shift work to the DOE centers? The DOE nanofab centers certainly enable a lot of good work. However, if you look at the cost to the taxpayer per user, then based on the numbers I have seen they are a factor of 5 to 10 less efficient than an NSF-sponsored nanofab for general-purpose work.

What role do the nanofabs serve now? Two roles.

(1) In the US, money for equipment at universities is VERY VERY hard to come by. The NSF-funded Major Research Instrumentation program was cancelled for many years running, for example. This is why NSF funding for the NNIN / Nanofabrication Network, as well as for MRSECs, has been an essential source of money for keeping research instrumentation up to date at many universities.

The second role the nanofabs play is providing the seasoned staff required to keep equipment running. It is very hard to get more than one NSF grant and NSF grants are so small anyway that they do not support even a fraction of a permanent staff member. (This is not true with NIH grants, by the way). Without these block grants, at most schools it would be very hard to find enough semi-permanent income to hire and retain the staff needed to maintain the instruments needed to carry out NSF-funded nano research.

I happened to be in Washington this week (on an NIH panel, funding rate of 6%) so I took an extra morning to talk to my program manager. He had no specific knowledge of this decision, but this big picture is this. The NSF keeps promising new exciting programs to keep the attention of Congress. And yet funding is flat or negative. So ... "something has to give".

What is shocking to me is that the NSF has decided to start demolishing infrastructure and shared resources first.

Douglas Natelson said...

JonB: I think you may have misunderstood my post. The NSF were the ones who expressly called to broaden the program beyond fabrication. The fact is, it had already been tilting in that direction as the participating schools tried to make their shared facilities of the greatest possible utility in interdisciplinary research (beyond nanoelectronics, for example). This isn't a case of people trying to justify boutique instruments. I agree that sometimes organizations want the prettiest, newest toy even though it may not be the globally best thing to further research overall.

JohnB, yeah, it's worrisome. The NSF clearly wants to keep individual investigator grant success rates from falling as low as NIH. We are grownups and understand that we have to invest time writing and reviewing proposals even though the success rates are not high. However, this is the second time in a year that NSF has run a major program call (last year's phase 1 Centers for Chemical Innovation; this year's NNIN), with hundreds of people investing thousands of hours, only to make no awards at all. At the same time, we are expected to keep reviewing, and have little choice but to keep writing. Stuff (sequester, for example) happens, but the trend is distressing.

JohnM said...

@Doug: Visited both the NSF and NIH last week. My NSF DMR program manager said he was hoping to hit a 12% funding rate. My NIH NIGMS (National Institute of General Medical Sciences) program director thought their institute would have a payline for R01s (single investigator grants) at 15%. Not hugely different. The panel I was on with the estimated 6% payline was one evaluating high-risk exploratory research, so called R21s.

For a careful first-pass analysis of how the recent funding situation has hurt NIH-funded researchers see the article "The impact of the sequester: 1,000 fewer funded investigators" by Jeremy Berg (

Anonymous said...

Please sign the petition to reconsider this decision at (and learn more about the nnin and it's applications).