2.9 Working with the NSF

Last updated on 2014/10/04 by dziegiel

The ERC program directors (PDs) and ERC Program leadership at NSF provide an invaluable resource to ensure the success of an ERC. PDs guide each ERC through the annual approval process, which is tied to annual reporting and oversight. PDs also manage the site visit team. Since they often manage other ERCs as well as other grant portfolios at NSF, they can alert you to possible collaborators or competitors. They can be the ERC’s best friend, but the ERC director and staff must be responsive to the numerous requests for information that often arise and frequently are urgent. Thus, both sides must commit to making the relationship work in order to succeed. The PD must balance this need with the requirement for objective oversight. The PD must follow the regulations governing the cooperative agreement, but can help the ERC director and staff understand and abide by the agreement.

2.9.1        Establishing a Mutually Supportive Relationship

At first glance, academe could perceive the NSF as simply a funding source for the ERC program, but it is really a partner. Through site visits, conferences, discussions, the ERC Best Practices Manual, and its program leader and program directors (PDs), the NSF is able to share its extensive experience in how the centers can effectively implement cross-disciplinary research programs, develop strategic-driven technology plans including testbed verification of its research, and prepare itself for long-term sustainability. And, the experienced NSF program directors and administrative staff provide a guiding hand as the center matures. Building and nurturing this relationship takes time and often starts before the ERC proposal is submitted.

NSF staff are open to discussing ideas for ERCs. This is a critical step for those aspiring to run an ERC: Go visit NSF at least a few months before the letter of intent is due. Bring a few high-level graphics showing the vision, the systems-level approach, and the team (including industry and education). At this meeting, the NSF staff can provide feedback on the vision, suggest possible partners, and critique, at a high level, the overall approach and strategy. This early feedback is essential to a successful proposal and, in case of success, initiates the relationship with NSF.

Contact with NSF staff during the proposal preparation and evaluation stage is allowed to some degree, but will usually be limited. They can answer some questions, but cannot provide detailed guidance on “what to put in the proposal?”. Obviously, the integrity and confidentiality of the review process cannot be violated. However, once reviews are made available, the NSF staff who were present for the review can often provide clarification of any ambiguous review comments. Such dialogue is extremely important when a pre-proposal has been invited for full proposal or when a full proposal has been selected for a site visit. Particularly for the proposal site visit, it will be important to already have established communication with NSF staff to facilitate site visit planning.

The NSF-ERC relationship that started in the proposal phase must expand and thrive for an ERC to have continued success. The PD is usually willing to work with the center director to help arrange for staff training. Since the ERC program and reporting requirements are unique and challenging, having trained staff from the beginning is important. Annual report data collection need not begin immediately, but should be scheduled as soon as possible. The NSF staff can help the ERC administrative staff understand the breadth and depth of information that needs to be collected and best practices for collecting the data. The NSF staff can also put center administrators in touch with counterparts at other ERCs, who can provide additional guidance. It is important in the first year for the admin staff to be in frequent contact with NSF.

Another critical program element that must be initiated immediately is the industry program. Again, the NSF staff should be considered a partner in making this happen by providing access to experienced industry program directors in other ERCs. In addition, NSF staff can alert center leadership to possible industry partners.

As an ERC nears the end of the 10-year funding cycle, NSF staff is critical in helping develop a sustainability plan. PDs can speak directly to university administration about the need for institutional commitment. PDs can also identify other funding mechanism, both within and outside of NSF, that can help sustain the activity of the center.

Just as it is important for NSF’s experience to flow to the ERCs, it is equally important that information regarding the ERC’s progress and successes flow effectively to the NSF staff. NSF’s ability to demonstrate the value of the program is a critical element of the partnership. NSF will ask for assistance in a number of ways outside of the annual report. These will include production of “highlights,” brief research updates on particularly compelling research within the ERC, which are included in the annual report but are also requested on an ongoing basis during the year. If the ERC produces press releases or is interviewed by the media regarding ERC research, it is important to acknowledge NSF support for the research. NSF may host research expositions to highlight particularly innovative projects. ERCs are often asked to contribute to such efforts. NSF may seek to have videos made which are used to promote NSF-funded activities. ERCs should fully support these efforts. Finally, PDs often need information ASAP when finalizing an annual report. They must present ERCs annually to an oversight board to approve the next year’s funding and, based on their experience, must be ready to answer questions about the ERC’s activities and progress.

2.9.2        The Oversight Process

NSF assesses the success and progress of ERCs in several ways. Annual reports and site visits are important components of this. As mentioned above, year-round communication with NSF program management is key to making both the annual report and the site visit go smoothly.

The annual reports demonstrate the strength of the ERC and the progress it is making in developing a creative and innovative research effort, a viable education program, and an effective outreach to and partnership with other institutions and industry. They also highlight the impact that the ERC has on the industry that is represented by its industrial partners. Other important aspects of the annual report are updates from prior year’s criticisms and evidence of cross-disciplinary research within the center. NSF wants to see that the ERC investment is producing more than just a collection of projects that could simply be funded independently. Sections of the annual report can be dedicated to cross-cutting research or innovation to proactively address these issues.

The annual site visit is comprised of the NSF program director, selected staff, and a number of academic experts in areas of technology relevant to the ERCs mission who assess the center’s progress and identify opportunities for future focus. It is important to have a good working relationship with the NSF PD, since they will be the conduit through which the ERC communicates with the site visit team. Site visitors will critique the ERC. Although they are not anonymous, the critique is anonymous. That is, the ERC does not know which site visitor authored a specific critique. The NSF PD can be the liaison to the particular site visitor, if more clarification is needed about a specific question. After the site visit report is finalized, the NSF PD is the one person who can provide guidance on how to address the concerns.

Years 3 and Year 6 are critical reviews in assessing the long-term viability of the ERC. The initial award is only for 5 years. If the site visit at Year 3 is unsatisfactory, then the NSF can phase down the ERC and end funding in Year 5. This is rare, but has happened and is extremely detrimental to both the ERC personnel and the NSF, since NSF erred in making the initial award in such a case. To ensure a successful Year 3 visit, it is important to invest in Years 1 and 2 to build credibility and to accept guidance from the site visit team. By demonstrating in Years 1 and 2 a willingness to produce a quality report, enthusiastically engage in the site visit, and respond to site visit criticism in a professional and constructive way, the ERC will set itself up for a strong Year 3 site visit.

The Year 6 review is even more critical because it determines whether the center is mature and adequately positioned for future success. To be favorably evaluated at the critical sixth-year milestone, a mature ERC will need to have achieved world leadership in its chosen field of specialization and must be able to demonstrate that it has effectively built upon its earlier years and that its long-term innovative research effort, education program, and outreach and partnership with other institutions and industry are in place, effective, viable, and sustainable.