Revisiting the NSF I/U CRC program: some recent insights

As promised in an earlier post, I now have the capability to add a standardized metropolitan-region field to any entry in my tbed database. Consequently, I’ve spent a few hours a week for the last several months revisiting my roughly 1,700 entries, adding, dropping, and revising as necessary to account for the ebb and flow of state and federal programming.

One of the categories I try and track is “national centers,” a broad rubric under which I’ve included major university-based, tbed-oriented research centers sponsored by federal agencies such as NSF, DOE, NASA, parts of DOD, and NIH. There you can sample a dense acronym soup: ERCs, MRSECs, STCs, NSECs, CTSAs, and so on. In the course of my data validation, I made some new observations about one particular acronym: I/U CRCs, the Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers program of the National Science Foundation.

Created in the early 1980s, the I/U CRC program was inspired partly by the big standalone industrial R&D consortia that came into vogue around that time, such as the now defunct MCC microelectronics effort in Austin. However, the I/U CRC was designed to be slotted directly into the university setting, requiring no customized antitrust exemptions of the kind necessary for the standalone consortia. Broadly speaking, the I/U CRC program seeds collaborative research programs into which industry members pay a substantial annual affiliates fee in return for non-exclusive rights to discoveries made by faculty (I have always seen some problems with that particular affiliates model, but save that for another day). Often, but not always, state governments have sweetened the match, particularly if the topic area is strategic for the state’s own industry base, or the state is laying the groundwork for an even larger NSF award such as an Engineering Research Center (ERC).

The I/U CRC was created in the NSF’s Engineering Directorate, and was one of the foundation’s earliest attempts to move away from the tradition of small, single-investigator, single-discipline projects. In fact it was one of the models used by late-80s NSF director Erich Bloch in creating the more ambitious (but less structured) ERC program. For two decades, I/U CRC was run at modest scale but with a firm (not to say iron) hand by Alex Schwartzkopf (yes, the same family as Norman, the Desert Storm general), who liked it a lot when the hierarchy ignored him and let him pursue his vision. Now that Alex has apparently retired, and the Congress’s interest in tbed has grown over time, the program has been grouped along with the Partnerships for Innovation and the multiagency i6 Challenge initiative, in a broader program area called Industrial Innovation and Partnerships.

When I checked my “national center” entries that were specifically I/U CRCs, I noted three important changes:

  • Substantial expansion in the number of centers being funded as active members of the program (in a separate post, I’m going to write about the question of “graduated” centers — a foolish term that feeds the illusion that university-based research activities can be designed to self-sustain after their federal, state or foundation funding phases out).
  • Noticeable broadening of the areas under which the program entertains proposals to form industry consortia: a listing once dominated by hard engineering concerns like electronics, computer engineering, and advanced manufacturing now includes categories for health and safety (where at least one award has been made to a non-university entity) and design and simulation.
  • Dramatic relaxation of what used to be Alex’s pretty firm rule that any given university could have no more than one or two I/U CRCs active at a time. If you use the search function of the database, you’ll find that certain institutions — notably Ohio State University and University of Florida — have turned into I/U CRC machines, running half a dozen at once.

None of these changes is necessarily bad, but it’s the latter one that interests me most. As it has always operated, the I/U CRC does not require the federal government to play favorites among states or regions and declare where a given industrial cluster is strong and deserves federal support. Instead, the program always simply favored those universities that had their industry-relations act together and could assemble a credible industrial steering committee, which might well have been more national in scope than regionally focused. In many cases, successful awards bootstrapped a whole new area of emphasis for a university or a community where none of merit or strength had existed before. With a relaxation of the constraint on simultaneous awards, the “Grant Swinger” ((Daniel S. Greenberg’s earnest but fictional PI at the equally mythical “Center for the Absorption of Federal Funds”)) effect may become even more pronounced. What is the effect on the nuanced “regional clusters of innovation” policy that the Obama administration has embraced? What do you think?

I’d also like your opinion on how the database is shaping up. Please do play with the search function. There are still a number of rough edges such as: overlapping categories (what’s an incubator versus a commercialization center?); or programmatic activity that can appear in more than one entity or agency at once (e.g., a seed fund can operate independently or under the auspices of a university licensing office); or that national centers are listed only once for the metro region in which the lead institution fits (but may have partners in several other regions around the country).

And do you think I should break out the different types of national centers? Either way, all this represents a lot of work, and while some of it is useful for my own consulting and thinking, I won’t take on obsessive taxonomical tasks if the results are not useful to the community at large. Thanks for looking!


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