2.10 Life After NSF

Last updated on 2014/10/06 by Michael Nolan

It is well known that the immediate success of a new or prospective ERC depends heavily on the extent to which the Director’s vision engages the ERC’s team, university, and industry and also satisfies the NSF Directorate and its site visitors. Likewise, the short-range continuity of an ERC depends heavily on the Director’s success in continuously revitalizing the center through the integration of new faculty from within and outside the university. However, long-range success depends on the extent to which the center’s continuing partners—the university and industry—value what the center has accomplished in interdisciplinary education and team-based research.

Therefore, it is important to start preparing early, securing support and money for permanent funding, while these stakeholders are still excited about the ERC. Ten years into the center’s existence the mood may well shift. The end of NSF funding is not the time to ask for permanent funding for the ERC. The time to ask is much earlier than that, ideally in Years 4-6.

The chances of the center’s survival are good. A 2010 survey of 31 graduated centers[1] showed that more than 80 percent of them continue to be successful university research and education centers of excellence. Most graduated centers weathered the loss of NSF funding reasonably well—albeit mostly with reduced funding and fewer faculty, staff, students, and industrial sponsors.

2.10.1    Graduation Planning

It was found in the above referenced survey that, as one would expect, one sustainability approach doesn’t work for all centers. While the pieces of the puzzle are similar for all situations, no particular “hot buttons” correlate exclusively with success or failure, because the transition process is impacted by several factors.

Virtually all graduated centers report that the NSF ERC culture involving integration of research, education, and industrial interaction with a focus on cross-disciplinary, engineered systems research was extremely helpful in strengthening and sustaining the center before, during, and after graduation and should be a key element of the transition planning.

In planning for graduation, it is important for the center to define its stakeholders—faculty, staff, industrial partners and university administrators—and have as many of them as possible involved in creating the sustainability plan and making decisions about what stays and goes. The plan should reflect the interests of as many stakeholders as possible, and one effective planning technique that involves many of the stakeholders is to hold a sustainability retreat early in the center’s life to create a roadmap for sustainability. This approach manifests a sense of “ownership” and commitment among stakeholders, making them part of the new, broader vision.

A realistic transition strategy builds on and enhances a center’s strengths, including its position at the forefront of its discipline. The most successful of the current graduated centers focused on building on their previous successes, enhancing their existing areas of technology, and expanding their collaborations with industry and other federal agencies to obtain major grants in those technologies. This approach better defines the center’s core technologies, makes necessary staffing changes, and increases focus on the present and future technologies relevant to industry and federal partners. These centers continue to build on what they are best at, much like successful companies that work at exploiting their core technologies and avoiding diversion into areas inconsistent with their strengths.

The vast majority of successful graduated centers reported changes in their overall field of research or industry since graduation, and most of them found the changes actually made the transition process easier. Changes cited included shifts from commodity to high-value-added materials that benefited graduated ERC testbeds and testing facilities, and the maturation of research areas into more diverse activities involving new strategic thrusts and basic research. Almost all of them have also instituted new research programs because of changes in their field of research; about half have experienced major thrust area changes, including expanding, narrowing, and becoming more strategic.

It is also important to remember during graduation planning that the graduated center will almost certainly undergo changes in overall funding that must be planned for—most likely reductions and the attendant reductions in the number of faculty and both undergraduate and graduate students involved. Successful graduated centers have had to deal with funding changes ranging from reductions of as much as 90 percent to increases as much as ten-fold.

Transition from NSF funding has broad ramifications, and the center programs that are most at risk are the same ones which NSF funding was likely used to put in place to begin with: basic research; programs and support for undergraduate students; STEM-related outreach programs for K-12, women, and minorities; and center infrastructure (including staff)—and it must be recognized in planning that they will be more vulnerable to reduced funding. Graduate education also can be affected. Key to the survival of these components is whether the lead university sufficiently values them.

Most successful graduated centers developed transitional plans that increased both the level and diversity of funding after graduation. Actions have included pursuing state and private foundation funding, increasing industrial collaboration, and increasing funding from federal agencies, as well as becoming more aggressive and active in submitting proposals and identifying funding opportunities.

2.10.2    Restructuring the Relationship with Industry

The center’s relationship with industry is an important component of both its long-range continuity and its effectiveness in giving substance to its vision. Today’s “leaner” companies believe they cannot afford large, esoteric, and unfocused research groups, any more than they can afford to send their people to yet another set of dry academic seminars. However, the fact remains that most of the groundbreaking research on which modern industries are based was and is conducted in universities.

The ERC that successfully makes the connection between university-based research and real industrial needs may outlive most of its faculty. A strong ERC can spin off companies with a real chance for survival and/or integrate itself into the planning process of companies to form functional strategic partnerships. Most of them have achieved an impressive body of advances in knowledge and technology and have been responsible for many major products and processes commercialized by industry. ERCs are usually highly valued by industry because they focus university research at a point where industry can grasp and exploit it, and because they produce a steady stream of uniquely cross-trained, team-oriented graduates who are likely to eclipse their peers in creativity and productivity. There is enough potential at the industrial interface to “power” a center indefinitely without NSF funding, but the director must harness the support of the university to preserve the essential strengths and distinctions of an ERC.

The foundation for a successful external relations strategy lies in building mutually beneficial, long-term relationships, which provide the basis for collaborations and partnerships. It is a nearly universal finding that personal interactions work best. In addition to the obvious approaches of pursuing increased industry funding, encouraging continued support by existing members, recruiting new members, and initiating industry-targeted precompetitive research projects, graduated centers have also developed programs and formalized methods that include industrial affiliates programs at several levels.

Some of the more successful approaches include research collaborations; visiting scholars (industry professionals working on campus for an extended period of time); seed-grant initiatives; industry-sponsored research; intellectual property licensing; teaming to win agency-sponsored programs; small state grants for local, small, and start-up companies; increased use of testbeds and fee-based testing services; increased emphasis on intellectual property development to spawn new start-ups, and increased industry input into new research projects; student internships and fellowships; and help with hiring students and negotiating the labyrinth of the university. Students spending time doing research at industry sites have fostered strong relationships with their industry hosts. Persuading industry personnel to visit an ERC even briefly (e.g., for one-day seminar visits) invariably brings surprised and highly positive reactions to what the center is accomplishing.

The center’s research interests and programs will likely evolve during transition, with increased focus on short-term problems that satisfy the needs of its industrial partners and new, evolving, and tangential areas of research that did not exist when the ERC was founded.

A substantial majority of the graduated centers continue to receive guidance from an industrial advisory board and operate with a center-wide industrial membership and intellectual property agreement. Most of the advisory boards, however, have seen changes since graduation, including a transition from using a member-based model to a sponsored research or research area model, flexible membership fees based on research scope, expanded membership options, and increased focus on larger companies. Some graduated centers have changed their IAB strategies several times as the scope of their research areas has changed.

2.10.3    Positioning the Center Within the University

Most graduated ERCs reported that the program has had a long-term positive impact on the engineering research and education culture in their academic field and on their home institution. ERC status is considered a major contributor to the prestige and standing of universities, the academic departments involved, and the individual faculty members who are part of the ERC.

Therefore, it is not surprising that most of their university’s policies have continued to be supportive of the ERC culture and have shown strong commitment to their survival during the transition process. The continued commitment of the university to the graduated centers is obviously key to the center’s continued sustainability. Centers report that this support has ranged from (in most cases) a high level of continued financial assistance for a specified number of years to (for a few) an almost complete lack of interest in whether the center continued to exist at all.

It is crucial to begin building a case early for the center’s graduation within the university. All participants in the center, not just the Director, should be involved. The industrial liaison specialist should become involved with the university’s technology transfer people by sharing information, experience, and resources. There are many ways that the education director could share resources with the existing units on campus and make its value known. The AD continuously works as a liaison with the university’s administrative network and, while often compromising to accomplish things, is able to air the center’s perspective. The communications director is able to network with traditional departments, the college and university communications staff, and the outside world. If the center has found a better way to do something, share it. At every opportunity, center participants should get others within the university on their side so they would be missed if they weren’t there. Everyone has a chance to make themselves indispensable by becoming actively involved in campus activities. Always think beyond the center!

There are several university-related issues that need to be resolved before an ERC graduates from NSF support to self-sufficiency. These include funding, space, and administrative position. Other potential casualties of reduced NSF funding are team orientation, the engineered-system focus, and interdepartmental collaboration.

Negotiating sufficient spacefor labs and testbeds and establishing synergistic relationships among the different academic departments required to implement new research thrusts is a challenge facing most graduated ERCs. In the best of cases, it may take a year or more to negotiate a permanent position for an ERC in the university structure. Since resources may be controlled by several different levels in the university (e.g., the Dean and upper administration), there are several negotiations that must successfully be navigated. In addition, chances are the initial agreement may have to be renegotiated more than once due to administrative turnover before a stable, long-term agreement is reached. The ERC requires a plan and positive leadership during this period to maintain high morale, with the Center faculty moving forward together. Whatever the agreement, it should be in writing, since verbal agreements are easily misunderstood.

Graduated centers typically receive transition funding and continued support from the university in the range of $50K to $1M per year. Financial assistance varies from direct cash contributions to equipment donations, to allocation of research facilities, to administration staff and seed funding support, to graduate student support through waivers and fellowships, to allowing the center to retain all or part of the indirect cost recovery associated with all or some of its research grants, to sharing income from technology licenses, to cost sharing on new proposals put out by the center. The ERC can directly influence the university’s ability to create discretionary income by generating more contracts, banking more discretionary funds, admitting more students, and generating seed funding to start new ideas that can eventually mature into self-sustaining multidisciplinary research projects.

It is also important to establish where in the university hierarchy the newly-graduated ERC Director will report. This has a direct impact on strategic planning and promotion of center personnel. It is important that center personnel sit on both the faculty and administrative promotion committees to represent the unique perspective of multidisciplinary research. In addition, the ERC should be an integral part of the administrative strategic planning process, not only to ensure stability for the ERC but also to inject new perspectives into the strategic planning process.


Adding the Systems Research Center (SRC)  to the University of Maryland in 1985 brought prestige to the university and the A. James Clark School of Engineering. Because NSF chose the Clark School to be the home of one of the first six ERCs, the college became recognized as a place of quality and excellence. It is difficult to imagine what a huge accomplishment this was at the time.

The university and its colleges benefitted from the association with the SRC in the key disciplines such as systems science and engineering, certainly, but also in electrical and computer engineering, mechanical engineering, and chemical engineering within the Clark School. The Robert H. Smith School of Business and the College of Computer, Mathematical and Physical Sciences also benefitted from the joint appointments.

The SRC, with its deliberate interdisciplinary focus, was the catalyst that jump-started interdisciplinary research at the university. Today this intellectual cross-fertilization is much more common. But in 1985 such concepts were quite new. There is no question that interdisciplinary research at the University of Maryland grew much faster because of the SRC’s presence.

By the early 1990s, faculty were being drawn to the University of Maryland specifically to work in the SRC. Upon graduation, the SRC was renamed the Institute for Systems Research (ISR) and achieved line-item funding in the state budget—a major achievement. Today, faculty within the university still eagerly seek joint appointments or affiliations with the institute. The collegial atmosphere created by ISR among faculty from many different disciplines leads to collaborating on proposals for interdisciplinary research, with a high level of innovation.

Yet, ISR has found it difficult to maintain its share of state funding within the college and the greater university. It often disproportionately bears a greater burden of cutbacks than departments within the college. The shrinking number of ISR staff over the past decade is one indicator of this continual struggle. ISR’s self-support model has become ever more entrepreneurial to maintain self-sufficiency.

It is a never-ending task to internally remind the university about the Institute and its worth. ISR has found through the years that it needs to heavily promote itself, its mission and its value to the university, not only to counteract assumptions and misconceptions, but simply to remain visible.

ISR has learned that universities are driven by impact, that long-term impact is far better than short-term impact, and that qualitative, transformational impact is far better than a just a list of statistics. The best metrics of impact for engineering are ISR graduates and what they achieve; industrial practice and creation of new sectors; patents and inventions that lead to innovations that change an industry sector or the way people work and live; seminal publications that change the knowledge base or the way people think; new courses, books, and ways to educate and train; and the international stature of faculty and programs.

[1] Williams, J. & C. Lewis. Post-Graduation Status of National Science Foundation Engineering Research Centers—Report of a Survey of Graduated ERCs. SciTech Communications, January 2010.