The National Science Foundation's (NSF's) Industry/University Cooperative
Research Centers (I/UCRC) Program is influencing positive change in the performance
capacity of the U.S. industrial enterprise. Over the past three decades, the
I/UCRCs have led the way to a new era of partnership between universities
and industry, featuring high-quality, industrially relevant fundamental
research, strong industrial support of and collaboration in research
and education, and direct transfer of universitydeveloped ideas, research
results, and technology to U.S. industry to improve its competitive posture
in world markets. Through innovative education of talented graduate
and undergraduate students, the I/UCRCs are providing the next generation
of scientists and engineers with a broad, industrially oriented perspective
on engineering research and practice.
With industrial and other support totaling 10 to 15 times the NSF investment,
I/UCRCs are a premier example of "leveraged" funding—a model for
the Federal Government in how to develop cost effective synergy with the
nation's research and development process. Indeed, this model has directly
influenced several other Centers programs that were subsequently established
by NSF and other Federal agencies. Placed in this context, the I/UCRC Program
is a distinctive driver of the growing NSF industry-university partnership. Emphasis
continues to be on the establishment of multi-university
I/UCRCs. The benefits from the resulting collaborations and pooling of resources are numerous.
The I/UCRC Program
Currently there are approximately 60 I/UCRCs, all administered by the Industrial
Innovation and Partnerships (IIP) Division of NSF's Engineering Directorate. More than
900 faculty members, along with some 1500 graduate students and 300 undergraduate
students, carry out the research at these Centers annually, which encompass almost
the entire spectrum of current technological fields. A primary purpose of
the I/UCRC Program is providing high-quality interdisciplinary education.
The Centers have produced several thousand M.S. and Ph.D. graduates, who
can be found throughout American industry and academe.
NSF supports these Centers through a cooperative leveraging mechanism. NSF's
financial contribution to the Centers is relatively small—about $15 million
in FY 2011. Funding from sources other than NSF is much larger, totaling
more than $68 million in FY 2000. Currently, the Centers have well
over 1000 memberships. Of these, about 85 percent are industrial firms, with
the remaining 15 percent including State governments, National Laboratories,
and other Federal agencies. Research at each center is formulated, selected and
executed in close partnership with the center's membership. Center research is
supported via a partnership between the center's universities and members through
which membership fees are pooled and assessed just 10 percent indirects by the
performing universities. Individual industry members are able to highly leverage
their membership investment while universities build trusted relationships across
entire industry sectors yielding return on investment across their mission areas.
How Does It Work?
An I/UCRC often begins with a small collaborative planning grant to a group of
university faculty members able to demonstrate the scientific, organizational, and entrepreneurial
skills necessary to form a team and initiate and run a successful Center.
If the prospective Center can obtain commitments of strong support from industry
and the affiliated university or universities, it may submit a proposal to
NSF describing the progress that has been made and documenting the team's
potential to operate successfully as an I/UCRC. Two or more universities
are required to propose a multi-university Center. Following successful
merit review of the proposal, NSF may make an initial five-year I/UCRC award
for Phase I operation of between $80,000 and $90,000 annually to the lead site of a
multi-university Center and $60,000 annually to each Center site. When the initial five year grant expires,
NSF funding may be extended for funding for two subsequent five year periods for
Phase 2 and Phase 3 operation at a reduced level.
NSF's investment in the I/UCRCs is intended to seed partnered approaches
to new or emerging research areas, not to sustain the Centers indefinitely.
The Foundation intends for I/UCRCs gradually to become fully supported by
university, industry, state, and/or other non-NSF sponsors. Each I/UCRC is
expected to maintain at least the minimum amount of industrial support through membership
fees derived from at least the minimum number of members outlined in the current solicitation.,
Each Center is also required to develop a plan to work toward self-sufficiency
from NSF. Over 80 percent of the centers established under the I/UCRC program continue
on as successful centers without NSF funding.
In addition to the basic I/UCRC award, Centers and Center researchers can
compete for other NSF support for research and education projects. At any
point—even at the end of its life cycle—NSF may provide funding to the Center
under special arrangements involving joint participation by other NSF program
offices. NSF supplemental support may include collateral programs such as
a Cooperative Opportunity for Research Between I/UCRCs (CORBI) project, whereby two
or more Centers and their industrial members engage
in a cooperative research project of interest to all parties (with NSF and
industry sharing costs). Through programs such as GOALI (Grant Opportunities
for Academic Liaison with Industry), fellowships are offered to Center faculty,
whereby the faculty member can spend time in a corporate research lab or
factory, again with NSF sharing the cost. Other supplements to I/UCRC awards
may be made in the form of joint sponsorship of projects with other federal
agencies, Research Experiences for Undergraduates, Teachers and Veterans and other educational activities,
workshops, and other purposes consistent with the goals of the Program.
The structure of a typical I/UCRC
Center Director reports to university management—in
most cases, directly to the Dean. An Academic Policy Committee composed
of deans and other top university officials such as the provost and vice
president for research is available to address important policy issues such
as patents and licensing, promotion, and tenure. The various research
programs usually consist of several projects with a strong focus
on an industrial interest. These projects will often involve graduate students
under the direction of faculty researchers.
Across the Program, these Centers have established an extraordinarily effective
partnership with industry. This partnership takes full advantage of the strength
of each participant. University faculty contribute their skills in research
and their understanding of the knowledge base; industrial researchers contribute
their knowledge of both the technical needs of industry and the challenges
associated with competing successfully in the marketplace. The partnership
is formalized in each Center's Industrial Advisory Board (IAB), which
advises the Center's management on all aspects of the Center, from research
project selection and evaluation to strategic planning. It is important to
note that all IAB members have common ownership of the entire I/UCRC
research portfolio; however, individual firms can provide additional support
for specific "enhancement" projects under seperate arrangements
with the respective university.
The partnership is given even greater strength by the direct involvement
of industry representatives in research projects. Each project in the Center
has a principal researcher (typically the project's research professor)
and in many cases also has one or more mentors from industry (who may be a
IAB representatives or engineers or scientists assigned from an IAB member company). The
principal researcher maintains close oversight of the progress of the research
by the student(s) and briefs the industrial mentor on a regular basis. The
mentor can, and often does, have direct input into the direction of the
This extensive industrial involvement in research planning and review leads
to direct technology transfer, bridging the gap that traditionally
has kept U.S. industry from capitalizing fully and quickly on the fruits
of research at American universities. The close involvement of industry in
the Centers also eliminates the perennial problem of "Not Invented Here";
in the cooperative research model, all Center developed research products
are owned by all the members.
The participation of NSF, although small financially, nevertheless
sets the tone for the I/UCRCs. Strong program management ensures that each
of the Centers continues to follow the I/UCRC model and this helps each to
build strong and successful centers. With such extensive industrial support
and participation, NSF's role is crucial in influencing industry to take
a longerterm view of its needs, with appropriate attention to research quality.
This ensures that the fundamental research conducted in the Centers continues
to add to the knowledge base that will be vital for solving the problems
and meeting the needs of the future.
NSF also helps to ensure high standards among the I/UCRCs through a mechanism
that is unique to this program: Independent professional Evaluators are
engaged to study the industryuniversity interaction onsite, both qualitatively
and quantitatively, to determine (1) the quality and impact of Center
research, (2) the satisfaction level of faculty who participate in the
program, and (3) the degree of satisfaction of industrial participants.
A historical profile of each Center is maintained; and annual assessments
are conducted of Center processes and results, finances, and structural issues.
One indication of the high quality of I/UCRC research is that faculty publish
their work in the most prestigious journals. I/UCRC faculty as well as students
regularly garner awards from their respective professional societies for their innovative
Industrial Innovation and Partnerships
Directorate for Engineering
National Science Foundation
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