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Midsize Facilities: The Infrastructure for Materials Research
As a consequence of the widely varied nature of smaller facilities for materials research in the United States, COSF has a broad membership composed of expert individuals with university, national laboratory, and industrial backgrounds. COSF includes facility users, facility managers and directors, and a wide range of materials and non-materials experts. The members of the committee and their affiliations are listed in Appendix B.
The full committee first met in May 2003 and then in October 2003. At the first meeting, presentations were made by senior personnel with experience in operating user facilities in both university and government laboratory settings. The committee also heard from various agencies currently providing extensive support for instrument acquisition and facility operation. The major outcomes of this meeting were the committee’s formulation of a preliminary definition of smaller facilities, its establishment of the study’s general areas of investigation, and the articulation of a plan for carrying out a series of facility site visits over the summer of 2003.
During summer 2003, subgroups of the committee, generally consisting of two to three committee members plus an NRC staff officer, visited various user facilities around the country. The purpose of these visits was primarily to gather some firsthand experience relating to planning, operation, and maintenance of typical smaller facilities; another important function of the visits was to hear directly from users and to learn about the commonalities across and differences between smaller facilities and other types of facilities. To minimize the time commitment involved, and to ensure maximum effectiveness, it was decided to target geographical areas that had clusters of similar facilities. However, the number of sites to be visited was limited by schedule and resources such that it was not possible to cover the full breadth of the United States. Sensitive to the need to obtain information about the resources, needs, and perspectives of other geographical areas, the committee agreed to invite additional testimony at future meetings and to develop a suitable questionnaire for distribution to a broad range of smaller facilities’ managers and users.
The committee’s five separate site visit trips concentrated on the approximate geographical areas of Boston, upstate New York, Illinois, the San Francisco Bay Area, and the Pacific Northwest. A total of 47 facilities were visited (see Appendix C). To ensure that broadly similar information was obtained from each facility, a site visit checklist (Appendix D) was used as a guideline to facilitate discussion during the site visits.
The full committee convened again in October 2003 to share the experiences and impressions gained by its various subgroups. Several presentations were made relating to the operation and organization of smaller facilities and the need for staff training. Extensive discussions followed relating to the development of a vision for the committee’s study, a working definition of a smaller facility, the characteristics of successful facilities and their best practices, current and future issues relating to facility operation, and future committee activities. The committee also developed facility manager and user questionnaires (Appendix E) designed to gather general information to better inform the committee about the breadth of its purview; the questionnaires were not designed to be statistical data-gathering instruments. In order to obtain a standard set of data, these questionnaires were also circulated to the smaller facilities that committee members had visited over the summer.
The Importance of Smaller Facilities
In the modern era, scientific advances require access to sophisticated facilities and instrumentation, and the role of such facilities in materials synthesis, fabrication, characterization, and measurement is steadily increasing. In fact, these facilities are essential to the scientific infrastructure of the United States. There are significant opportunities for accelerating scientific advances in materials and nanotechnology research by invigorating such facilities and allocating their resources to best effect. Accordingly, COSF re-emphasizes the importance of smaller facilities.