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Federally supported university-based centers constitute a category of programs that support collaborative (usually interdisciplinary) research between universities and industries. These include such programs as the Engineering Research Centers (ERCs), Science and Technology Centers (STCs), and Industry–University Cooperative Research Centers (I/UCRCs) of the National Science Foundation (NSF). Other agencies, such as the Department of Transportation and the Department of Energy (DOE), also support university-based centers. These programs are generally awarded on a continuing basis with renewal reviews at fixed periods. NSF support for individual STCs phases out after 11 years, while other center programs are funded longer. Leveraged support from industry is generally required, the level of which varies by program.

The NSF efforts have the longest track record. For example, the ERCs program was established in 1985.22 The program itself is occasionally evaluated internally and by an external contractor using surveys, bibliometric analysis, and other methods.23 These evaluations generally show that a large percentage of industry participants derive benefits from participation, including knowledge transfer and the ability to hire students. At the time when the STCs program was being considered for renewal, a National Academies committee recommended that the program continue.24 Figure EL-2 shows how the various NSF centers programs fit into the overall funding picture.

Options for federal action include the following:

  • Establish a new, large, multi-agency centers program. In a preliminary report released for public comment earlier this year, a committee of the National Academy of Engineering proposed to create a program of interdisciplinary discovery-innovation institutes on research-university campuses. The institutes would bring together research, education, and practice around the solution of major societal problems.25 Multi-agency federal support for the institutes would build to several billion dollars per year, to be supplemented by support from industry, states, and nonprofits.


L. Parker. The Engineering Research Centers (ERC) Program: An Assessment of Benefits and Outcomes. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation, 1997. Available at:


J. D. Roessner, D. Cheney, and H. R. Coward. Impact of Industry Interactions with Engineering Research Centers—Repeat Study. Arlington, VA: SRI International, 2004.


NAS/NAE/IOM. An Assessment of the National Science Foundation’s Science and Technology Centers Program. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1996.


National Academy of Engineering. Assessing the Capacity of the US Research Enterprise. Preliminary Report for Public Comment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2005.

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