Making the Case for Engineering Study and Recommendations

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The Engineering Directorate can establish a sustainable framework supporting collaborative partnerships across agencies and outside entities, or within NSF at the cross-directorate or cross-division level. This framework will recognize the need to manage all resources – financial, IT, and human, necessary to assure successful collaborations in the future.

  1. Create a flexible format and a realistic timeline in which to inform and build community capabilities;

  2. Recognize management needs in terms of time and staffing to adequately support commitments to collaborations;

  3. Develop a prioritized list of ongoing and emerging areas that can provide a sustainable framework for discussion between agencies and directorates with an open format for introducing, maturing, and graduating areas of activity.

Appendix 4: Effectively Serving the Engineering Community

The NSF has a long history of success in serving the broad community of engineers and the industries that rely on them, through its support for enabling technologies, technology transfer, and the education of a strong diverse workforce. These lead to greater economic competitiveness, a stronger industrial base, more jobs, and commercial products that better society and improve quality of life.
There is a continuing need for wise research investment and leadership from NSF/ENG to stimulate the development of a technology base in areas critical to the nation’s economy and to provide for industry’s present and future workforce needs. (If these contributions are not always fully appreciated, NSF’s past successes and vision for the future need to be better communicated to the engineering community.)
NSF/ENG programs serve the engineering research community specifically through support of academic research and education, sound stewardship of federal research funds, management of a fair and effective proposal review and award process, the engineering research centers program, infrastructure investments such as NNIN and NEES, and technical leadership to help stimulate interdisciplinary research activity in areas ripe for innovation. These communities also benefit from proactive efforts within NSF and ENG to increase funding levels for engineering research.

Engineering Across Multiple Scales (RPI, Award CMS 030596)

While NSF/ENG has been proactive in supporting research at the intersection of diverse disciplines through program solicitations, it does not do so well in unsolicited core proposal competitions. When, as often happens, highly innovative research does not fall neatly into areas defined by targeted solicitations, a significant portion of the engineering research community is not being particularly well served. Further, a good portion of the investment in solicitations has come in recent years at the expense of core programs. The table in the Portfolio section of this report shows that unsolicited proposals accounted for slightly over one quarter of the 2003 ENG budget. This causes serious disruptions since the core programs are the primary means through which NSF/ENG supports the full spectrum of the engineering research community.


Support for “transforming” interdisciplinary research has the potential to educate students with broad skill sets who are ready to hit the ground running in an industrial environment, transition critical technology to industry, and provide the United States a competitive edge in the global marketplace. At the same time it is important that enabling discoveries and innovation continue to occur within single-investigator research grants, which are supported by core programs. Sound stewardship of NSF research funds requires that NSF/ENG maintain a careful balance between core programs and program solicitations.
Open communication and information exchange between NSF/ENG and the research community is essential, both to receive guidance and feedback from the engineering research community, and to provide a clear and up-to-date picture of present funding opportunities. Hopefully, clearly communicated expectations will help lead to higher, more historical success rates.
It is important to ensure that the NSF funding for core research programs not fall below critical levels. Budget programming should be corrected to provide a “safety net” and prevent such an occurrence in the future. One possible guiding principle would be to prevent core budgets from falling below historical levels, e.g., averaged over the most recent five-year period.
An unfortunate gap exists in the ENG portfolio. Awards for broadly based engineering research range from individual investigator grants to large engineering research centers, but funding vehicles for intermediate-size engineering research groups do not exist outside special solicitations (e.g., NIRT or SIRG). Interdisciplinary research usually requires community building and formation of partnerships that bridge diverse disciplines. What opportunities will be there for interdisciplinary engineering research groups after the solicitations that supported them are terminated? Effective funding vehicles are needed within core programs across ENG to permit interdisciplinary group investigations to continue.


A multi-pronged approach is needed, including:

  • Avoid abrupt and unpredictable reversals in funding patterns, which make it difficult for the research community to plan effectively. These could arise from:

    • Holding a solicitation for interdisciplinary research, and discontinuing it after one year leaving the teams that were formed with nowhere to go, and

    • Faulty budgeting and planning algorithms.

  • Organized workshops to develop a strategic vision for the Engineering Directorate with the several-fold goal to:

    • Identify those areas of engineering research with the potential for the greatest economic and societal impact over the next several decades, particularly at the intersection of technical disciplines experiencing rapid growth and innovation,

    • Fully engage the engineering community in these discussions to promote greater awareness and communication regarding NSF research opportunities,

    • Help ENG exercise leadership in stimulating research that bridges critical gaps between diverse disciplines and promoting interdisciplinary partnerships, and

    • Enunciate a clear and compelling argument for greater congressional support for the nation’s research infrastructure.

  • Strategic planning within ENG to strike a dynamic balance between exercising leadership in newly emerging areas through program solicitations and serving the full spectrum of ENG community through core programs.

  • Meet with engineering leaders in the university, commercial and government communities to establish a consensus regarding workforce needs for the coming decades.

  • Encourage partnerships among diverse disciplines at academic institutions to better prepare a workforce suited to projected challenges in the industrial sector, as well as between engineering schools and industry to better define educational needs.

  • M
    NSF Summer Institute on Nano Mechanics and Nano Materials at Northwestern University, training 130 professors and post-docs a year, in 2 sessions.
    eet with Deans of Engineering to identify the primary education and workforce challenges for the first quarter of the century and determine how NSF can help them meet these challenges.

  • Engage industry to reexamine how U.S. research expertise and accomplishments can transition to industry effectively and contribute to the nation’s economic competitiveness on global markets.

Appendix 5: NAE study: “Assessing the Capacity of the U.S. Engineering Research Enterprise”

In this report we identify Priorities and Actions to better make the case for engineering. In order to make these concrete, we review one of example of how they can be addressed, namely the National Academy of Engineering study to assess the capacity of the U. S. Engineering Research Enterprise [NAE, 2005].

It is an example of the Directorate for Engineering serving “as a catalyst to build and communicate with the engineering community a shared vision for engineering” (Priority #1) and building “on existing linkages and enable new flexible and collaborative partnerships” (Priority #4). The goals of these efforts were to conduct a “fast-track” evaluation of (1) the past and potential impact of the U.S. engineering research enterprise on the nation’s economy, quality of life, security, and global leadership, and (2) the adequacy of public and private investment to sustain U.S. preeminence in basic engineering research.

The NAE assessed the capacity of the U.S. engineering research enterprise, evaluated recent contributions of U.S.-based engineering research to the nation’s interests, assessed potential contributions to meeting emerging national challenges and opportunities, and outlines a national strategy to ensure that the engineering research foundations of American global economic, military, scientific, and technological preeminence remain rock solid in the face of rapid, often disruptive, societal and global changes. The report puts forward findings, recommendations, and a national action plan designed to engage all major constituents of the U.S. engineering enterprise.

The preliminary report is posted on the NAE website [] so that the public at large and the engineering community in particular can comment on it. The discussion generated will refine and strengthen the recommendations.
The draft recommendations focus on critical changes in public- and private-sector investment priorities, programs, and activities. The draft report proposes a new, nationwide initiative to encourage and support technological innovation, including:
Recommendation 1. Federal research and mission agencies should increase significantly their investments in engineering and physical sciences research, particularly long-term fundamental research, to sustain broad-based science and engineering advancement across disciplines. These agencies should also continue to encourage multidisciplinary research through support of project-specific research teams and other institutionalized mechanisms, such as engineering research centers and university-industry research centers.
Recommendation 2. Federal and state governments should invest more resources in upgrading and expanding laboratories, equipment, information technologies, and other infrastructural needs of research universities to ensure that the national capacity to conduct world-class engineering research is sufficient to address the technical challenges that lie ahead. Geographically dispersed, world-class research facilities will have the added benefit of making engineering attractive to more students (at home and from abroad), will stimulate a competition of ideas among research groups working on related problems, and will provide a basis for the emergence of networks of researchers and clusters of industry across the nation.
Recommendation 3. State and federal governments, academic institutions, accreditation bodies, and the private sector should take steps to cultivate U.S. student interest in, and aptitude for, careers in engineering, and in engineering research in particular. These steps should include providing more funding for graduate fellowships and traineeships and faculty development, as well as supporting efforts to improve K–12 math and science education to prepare high school students for careers in science and engineering.
Recommendation 4. Academic institutions, accreditation bodies, and other public and private-sector stakeholders should encourage the development and implementation of innovative curricula that address the realities of contemporary engineering practice and the needs of the nation, without compromising the teaching of fundamental engineering principles.
Recommendation 5. Immigration procedures should be addressed to enable American industry and universities to continue to attract top scientific and engineering talent from around the world. Although the committee recognizes that many other study panels, committees, and task forces have made similar recommendations, little progress has been made toward fulfilling them.
We offer this as an example of the role that NSF can play to stimulate the engineering community to formulate compelling visions of the future and to plan for that future.

1 American Perspectives on Engineers and Engineering, AAES, 2004

2 The Engineer of 2020 (NAE); Assessing the Capacity of the U.S. Engineering Research Enterprise (NAE); Innovate America (Council on Competitiveness)

3 Raising Public Awareness of Engineering [Davis, Gibbin, NAE, 2002]

4 New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman , Reported in Assessing the Capacity Report [NAE, 2005]

5 AdComm liaisons include: Joan F. Brennecke; Legand L. Burge, Jr.; Patricia D. Galloway; Richard Miller; Cherri Pancake; Jacquelyn (Jackie) Sullivan; and Judy Vance

6 Extraordinary Women Engineers Final Report 2005, AAES, ASCE, WGBH Educational Foundation

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