Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers: Model Partnerships
The National Science Foundation's (NSF's) Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers (I/UCRC) program is effecting positive change in the performance capacity of the U.S. industrial enterprise. Over the past two 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 university-developed 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 for how to cost-effectively synergize the nation's research and development process. Indeed, this model has directly influenced several other Centers programs established subsequently 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.
The I/UCRC Program
NSF supports the Centers through a cooperative leveraging mechanism. NSF's financial contribution to the Centers is relatively small--about $5.2 million in FY 2000, as compared to funding from other sources that totaled more than $68 million in FY 2000. Currently, the Centers have over 700 partners. Of these, about 90 percent are industrial firms; the remaining 10 percent include state governments, National Laboratories, and other Federal agencies. In addition, the majority of the universities provide direct and/or indirect support, such as cost sharing, for their Centers. These Centers are truly cooperative.
How Does It Work?
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 $300,000 of industrial support through membership fees, at least six industrial members, and a plan to work toward self-sufficiency from NSF.
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 TIE 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 Grant Opportunities for Academic Liaison with Industry (GOALI), 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 (REU) and other educational activities, workshops, and other purposes consistent with the goals of the program.
The structure of a typical I/UCRC is illustrated in Figure 1. The Center Director reports to university management--in most cases, directly to the Dean of Engineering. An Academic Policy Committee composed of the deans of engineering and science 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 coherent focus on an industrial interest; they are pursued by 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.
The partnership is given even greater depth through 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 a monitor from industry (who may be an IAB representative or an engineer 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 monitor on a regular basis. The monitor can, and often does, have direct input into the direction of the research.
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--each in its individual fashion--and that each remains strong. With such extensive industrial support and participation, NSF's role is crucial in influencing industry to take a longer-term 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 industry-university interaction onsite, both qualitatively and quantitatively, to determine the quality and impact of Center research, the satisfaction level of faculty who participate in the program, and 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 win awards from the professional societies for their innovative research.
Measures of Success
The program's long record of success in this arena is recognized not only by its members. In 1998 the Technology Transfer Society of America, a national organization of public and private-sector technology transfer professionals, bestowed on NSF's I/UCRC program its Justin Morrill award. This award is given annually to an organization that has an "exemplary record of transfer of technology and also has made outstanding contributions to the theory and practices of technology transfer that are widely used by others."
From the standpoint of member companies, one of the outstanding benefits of participation in an I/UCRC is the opportunity to work with graduate students who are being exposed to industrial needs and practices and who have learned to pursue their research with a view toward improving the competitiveness of U.S. industry. Graduates of I/UCRCs represent for their employers an effective and long-lasting form of knowledge transfer.
To industry, it is results that count. Evaluator surveys show that industry is satisfied with the results of I/UCRC membership--not just in terms of new products and processes (as described in the accompanying fact sheets), but also in terms of access to the best new ideas and first-rate prospective employees. Their enthusiastic participation and support are the proof of their satisfaction.
and Centers Division
Jan 24, 2013
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