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Photo of Dr. France A. Córdova

Photo by NSF/
Stephen Voss

Dr. France A. Córdova
National Science Foundation


ERC Program: Past, Present and Future

Launch of the Engineering Research Center for
Power Optimization for Electro-Thermal Systems (POETS)
Urbana, Illinois

October 15, 2015

Good morning. I am so pleased to be at the launch of POETS, an NSF Engineering Research Center that will enable more efficient power systems for transportation, equipment, tools and mobile applications.

This center represents a powerful collaboration led by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in partnership with Howard University, Stanford University and the University of Arkansas, along with several leading private sector companies.

Engineering Research Centers (ERCs) integrate engineering research and education with technological innovation to transform our economy, health and security. They link scientific discovery to technological innovation and support engineering graduates who develop into creative pioneers and our next generation of future leaders in emerging technological areas.

The ERC program was created in 1984 to bring industry, universities and government together to produce advances in engineering, innovative technologies and effective solutions that translate into valuable, industry-ready products and services. Many current technologies and innovations we appreciate today evolved from NSF Engineering Research Centers. These innovations have helped build a stronger economy, developed a more qualified workforce and bridged the gap between fundamental research and real world deployment.

The ERC goal at its beginning: To revolutionize U.S. engineering education and research.

The first approved ERC budget was $10 million and in 1985 attracted 142 proposals from more than 100 institutions which resulted in six awarded Centers. NSF funds each Center for up to 10 years, then they "leave the nest" as we say to become self-sustaining and continue to produce innovations with broad benefits.

Since its creation 30 years ago, the ERC program has made enormous strides. Past and current ERCs cover a wide range of industry sectors including manufacturing, electronics, information technology, energy, water, infrastructure, biotechnology and biomedicine.

In FY2014 across all reporting ERCs, there were 681 participating institutions, 423 industry partners and 3,219 participating faculty and students.

As we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the ERC program, I'm happy to report some results and transformative discoveries resulting from this program: We have funded 57 successful Centers throughout the U.S. in a wide range of research areas.

  • More than 193 spinoff companies have emerged from the ERC program.

  • Approximately 739 patents have been awarded.

  • And, many transformations in U.S. health, security and economic benefits have resulted from ERC program graduates, including:

    • The Argus II artificial retina.

    • Surgical robots.

    • Earthquake damage assessment tools.

    • MP3 recording technology, and

    • Biometric password management.

NSF estimates that the economic value of ERC-originated products and processes is in the tens of billions dollars. And this figure does not even include the enormous benefits of those products--which have improved health and safety, boosted industrial productivity and enhanced environmental protection--to our country, and the world at large.

ERC Programs will continue to produce many of our future scientists and engineers who will impact nearly every aspect of our future lives.

The pioneers and leaders who contributed to the previous examples of innovation I spoke about are only a few of those who have come out of ERC Programs. Building these types of innovators and trailblazers is paramount to NSF's program and the building stones of a growing economy and a strong factor in ensuring our global competitiveness.

And it will be our next generation of diverse students that permeate the multidisciplinary culture of ERCs.

The beauty of science--found in collaborative and diverse partnerships such as ERCs--is that sometimes we come across unexpected discoveries and solutions that change the world.

It is this constant search for new answers, new solutions and new discoveries that leads to innovation...a growing economy … and a better world.

ERCs have a wonderful record of success. And, I am confident they will continue to advance engineering research, education and innovation for decades to come.

Thank you and best wishes to POETS and its work in the future.