Report Analyzes US's International Position in Materials Science "Nearly all modern industries benefit from developments in materials research. Because there is considerable overlap in the study of materials problems among industries, solutions have enormous economic leverage." - COSEPUP report
A panel of expert researchers in, and users of, materials science concluded that "the United States is among the world leaders in all subfields of materials science and engineering research and is the leader in some subfields, although not in the field as a whole." The panel found that "a general area of US weakness for most subfields is in materials synthesis and processing. Increasingly, US researchers must rely on specialty materials suppliers in Europe and Japan for bulk crystals and other specialty materials." The panel warned that the US position is at risk because of insufficient funding to modernize existing facilities and build new ones.
The panel of materials experts was one of three formed by the National Academies' Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP) to study the feasibility of using international benchmarking to assess the US position in any chosen field of research. At an October 4 hearing (see FYI #125), COSEPUP members discussed this experiment and the resulting report. The Materials section of the COSEPUP report runs 100 pages, and provides a detailed, comprehensive discussion of the relative US position in many aspects of the field. It notes that "because of the size and industrial strength of the US materials science and engineering research community, it cannot be compared meaningfully with those of other single countries. The only sensible method is to compare the US with regional groups, such as Europe or Asia."
The report looks at key factors affecting the US's international position, funding sources, hot current topics, performers, and collaborative activities. It raises several cautions: shifting federal priorities, especially in DOD, have led to reduced funding in some areas; the US's ability to attract talented foreign researchers has declined as research capability in other countries grows; and insufficient funding to modernize the infrastructure has led to US facilities that are, in some cases, 20-30 years older than those in other countries. The report finds that neutron scattering facilities in the US are oversubscribed and, "if not upgraded, soon will have less capability than found in sources abroad." It acknowledges "some concern within the synchrotron radiation source community that the development of third-generation sources in Europe...will attract users away from second-generation sources" in the US. Regarding smaller facilities, it finds "concern among top university researchers that facilities and equipment for materials research in several foreign universities now outclass those at most universities in the United States."
For the purposes of the benchmarking exercise, materials research was divided into nine interrelated subfields, but the panel went into more depth, assessing the US position in many sub-subfields. It found that the US "still maintains an intellectual lead in most areas" of Biomaterials, while the US and Japan "share leadership" in Ceramics. Although the US has been a leader in Polymers, "federal support for this research at universities has essentially stopped, because of changing DOD, DOE, and NASA priorities." US research in Magnetic Materials "has declined since the 1970s," while research in Europe and Japan has been sustained. In Metals, Electronic and Optical-Photonic Materials, and Superconducting Materials, the report found the US to be the world leader in most subfields. The country "enjoys a strong world position in many areas" of Polymers. In Catalysts, the US "is, and will likely continue to be, among the world leaders in industrial practice."
However, the report concludes, "US leadership in the various subfields of materials science and engineering is not assured for the future. In contrast to opportunities of leadership, there are current developments that could curtail the ability of the US to capitalize on these opportunities. These include shifting materials research and development priorities in the Department of Defense, which have created research gaps in some materials subfields (e.g., ceramics and composite materials, electronic and optical materials), potential decreases in the supply of foreign graduate students, elimination of central research laboratories by major high-tech companies, and lack of attention to research into methods for shortening the implementation cycle for advanced materials."
The entire COSEPUP report, "Experiments in International Benchmarking of U.S. Research Fields," runs 316 pages and encompasses case studies of materials, mathematics and immunology. It can be viewed or ordered online for $49.00 from the National Academy Press at http://books.nap.edu/catalog/9784.html
Audrey T. Leath