Transatlantic community - Q&A with Ian Robertson of The National Science Foundation

Materials World magazine
3 Mar 2011
"Question mark" image courtesy of Chris Baker

Professor Ian Robertson is the new Division Director for Materials Research at the National Science Foundation, in Arlington, USA. He chats to Martin Parley.

Q: What was your background before becoming Division Director for Materials Research (DMR) at the National Science Foundation?

I grew up in Carluke, a small town in South Lanarkshire. My bachelor’s degree is in applied physics, which I received from Strathclyde University, Glasgow, Scotland, in 1978. Then in 1982, I took up the position of postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Illinois, where I have remained, holding various positions including Professor, Director of the Office of Continuing Engineering Education and Head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

Q: What are your aims and hopes for your tenure at NSF?

With the sluggish economy and uncertainty over future funding levels for the NSF, one of the primary challenges will be to prioritise our activities so that we can provide the resources to support high risk basic materials research across the broad spectrum supported by the Division. The material research supported by the Division extends from biomaterials, to electronic and photonoic systems to metals and ceramics.

At the same time, we must continue to support the improvements in the research infrastructure needed and continue our goal of broadening participation across science and engineering. Finding the right balance in our portfolio of activities will be a major challenge.

Q: What is the broader impacts criterion and how do you hope to improve it?

Five questions that identify the areas in which broader impacts typically occur are provided in the NSF Grant Proposal Guide. The questions are –

  • How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning?
  • How well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of under-represented groups, such as gender, ethnicity, disability, geographic?
  • To what extent will it enhance the infrastructure for research and education, such as facilities, instrumentation, networks, and partnerships?
  • Will the results be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding?
  • What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society?

Dr Suresh said recently, ‘I think the spirit of the broader impacts criterion is good, but the question is, on whom do you place the burden?’ Individuals, or a programme that includes a collection of individuals, or could the Institution have some accountability?’

We have started to engage our community to determine how best to respond to this question so that our efforts in this area have an impact.

Q: What will be the biggest developments in materials in the future and what impact will they have?

There have been a number of exciting breakthroughs in the last few years. For example, research supported by the Division last year resulted in the fabrication of the first quantum machine, the discovery of Frank-Casper sigma phase in block copolymers, and the predication and synthesis of topological insulators.

One notable change that is occurring throughout the field is the synergistic coupling of theory, modelling and simulation with experimental efforts. I expect this coupling will continue to stimulate and even accelerate breakthroughs and lead to new discoveries about, for example, the behaviour of molecules, and the rules governing reactions and interactions that occur over multiple, temporal and spatial spaces, and govern macroscopic properties.

This, along with the advances in our ability to build materials, atom by atom, molecule by molecule, block by block, will allow us to create designer materials with properties and performance characteristics tailored to the specific application. This is essential to meet the material challenges central to addressing critical areas in health, energy, communications, electronics, environment and transportation.

Q: How are research projects conducted at the DMR?

The DMR is organised into offices, programmes and centres. The offices are special programmes, which combine our research experience for undergraduates, Materials World Network, and international materials institutes, and our office for facilities and instrumentation.

The programmes are biomaterials, solid state and materials chemistry, condensed matter physics, condensed matter and materials theory, ceramics, polymers, metals, and electronic photonic materials. These are dynamic groups in the sense they often co-fund research efforts that span more than one area within the Division and throughout the Foundation. Our centre activities are large multidisciplinary research activities that also emphasise industrial interactions and educational outreach.

An example of how we might foster new collaborations and broaden the groups interacting is exemplified by the solar solicitation, which was a partnership with the Divisions of Mathematics and of Chemistry. A unique aspect of this call was each submission required one investigator from each of the three disciplines. This stimulated new interactions between these three groups. The response from the communities has been positive and the early indications of the emerging research are encouraging.

Q: What are the funding priorities and are there many trade-offs?

Our mission falls under the strategic goals of the Foundation, which are to advance the frontiers of knowledge, educate the science and engineering workforce, as well as the general public, provide and support the research infrastructure, and support excellence in science education.

The mission of the DMR is to –

  • Enable new discoveries about the behaviour of matter and materials.
  • Create new materials and new knowledge about materials phenomena.
  • Address fundamental materials questions that often transcend traditional scientific and engineering disciplines and may lead to new technologies.
  • Prepare the next generation of materials researchers.
  • Develop and support the instruments and facilities that are crucial to advance the field.
  • Share the excitement and significance of materials science with the public at large.

With a significant but finite budget and a broad mandate, as seen from our mission statement, there have to be trade-offs. It is simply impossible to support every activity at an appropriate level. Consequently, and unfortunately many meritorious proposals remain unfunded.

Q: On what basis do you judge whether to award grants?

All proposals submitted to NSF are reviewed according to two merit review criteria – intellectual merit and broader impacts. We rely on input related to these criteria from peer reviews.

Typically, there are three or four independent reviews of each proposal. The programme directors use these evaluations as the basis for their recommendation. An important point is that the programme directors do not simply tally the reviewer scores, they use the detailed comments, as well as the reviewer’s recommendations, in their analysis of the proposal.

Q: How does the NSF engage with the public to illustrate the importance of materials science?

Public engagement is one component of broader impacts. It includes –

  • Working with science centres on new materials research and education exhibits.
  • Assisting journalists with their stories on technical topics and developing new art forms for communicating materials research to wider audiences.
  • Creating materials research-related websites enhanced by engaging animations and movies to educate non-scientists and the public at large.
  • Communicating the benefits and long term impacts of materials research and enhance public appreciation of the relevance of advanced materials research to the future and society.

Q: Is long-term economic benefit a requirement for research funding?

The mission of the foundation is to advance knowledge and learning, to provide and support the research infrastructure needed to conduct the research, and to serve as stewards of the research and education enterprise. Basic scientific discovery remains a critical aspect of our research portfolio. However, start-up companies do emerge from the research activities we support and much of our research portfolio addresses the fundamental science needed to address societal problems.

Q: Does the funding process need to be streamlined so there is less bureaucracy?

With the growth in interest in materials research and the tremendous drive and enthusiasm of faculty, there has been an increase in the number of proposals submitted to the division and to the Foundation. This is challenging the entire system, as the proposals have to be reviewed and funding decisions made.

Further information

Dr. Ian Robertson, Director, Division of Materials Research National Science Foundation, 4201 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 1065, Arlington, VA 22230, USA. Tel: +1 (703) 292-7206. Email: