New Report Charts Future of Condensed-Matter and Materials Physics

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Publication date: 
21 June 2007

"What are the prospects for CMMP [Condensed-Matter and Materials Physics] in the early part of the 21st century?"is the focus of a new study by a National Research Council committee. The answer can be found in a 216-page report that was released last week by the Committee on CMMP 2010 of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Research Council's Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences. "CMMP faces exciting scientific and technological opportunities" the report concludes, but then warns, "there are danger signs on the horizon."

"Condensed-Matter and Materials Physics: The Science of the World Around Us," is the fourth report in a wide-ranging decadal assessment of physics now being conducted by the Board on Physics and Astronomy. Completed reports in this six-part series examined elementary particle physics (; atomic, molecular and optical science (; and plasma science ( ). See for additional information on the overall assessment and forthcoming reports.

The 19-member CMMP committee was co-chaired by Mildred S. Dresselhaus of MIT (and the chair of the AIP Governing Board) and William J. Spencer of SEMATECH (retired). Other members were drawn from U.S. and foreign universities, and private and federal research laboratories. Support was provided by the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.

The first of four committee meetings was held in early 2006, and was followed by five town hall sessions at meetings of the American Physical Society, American Chemical Society, and the Materials Research Society. Nine focus groups were convened at national laboratories and universities to receive additional input, as well from a public web site. A separate workshop was held early this year on CMMP tools and facilities. Staff from the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Office of Management and Budget contributed to the report.

The report presents its findings and recommendations in a style approachable to policy makers and general audiences. The committee centered its work around five tasks: a review of CMMP, potential scientific and technological future impacts, previous and future societal impacts, a review of tools and facilities, recommendations for the U.S. research enterprise, and the structure and level of current research.

"One of the main findings of the report is the identification of six grand challenge areas in which CMMP research is poised to have a large and enduring impact in the next decade," the report states. Individual chapters describe each of these challenges:
"How do complex phenomena emerge from simple ingredients?"
"How will the energy demands of future generations be met?"
"What is the physics of life?"
"What happens far from equilibrium and why?"
"What new discoveries await us in the nanoworld?"
"How will the information technology revolution be extended?"

In addition to discussing how CMMP can contribute to these six grand challenges, the report reviews the reasons that the U.S. "premier position" in CMMP research "is in jeopardy." Chief among the reasons: other nations are investing heavily in CMMP R&D; industrial laboratories give little emphasis to fundamental research; and after accounting for inflation, federal CMMP funding has been flat over the last decade. Indications of this decline are more difficult research environments for young researchers, a major decline in the NSF grant application success rate, the decline in as-spent grant buying power, and the "essentially flat" number of U.S. publications in two major journals.

The committee developed a set of policy recommendations based on the projected 7 percent increase in funding over ten years that was recommended in the American Competitiveness Initiative. With the projected doubling of the budgets of NSF, the DOE Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the committee recommends that:

"Strong support should be maintained for individual and small groups of investigators, which are historically the primary source of innovation in CMMP. The ratio of support for individual and small groups of investigators relative to support for centers and facilities should not decline in the next decade.

"The average success rates for funding of proposals should be increased to more than 30 percent over the next 5 years to give junior scientists the opportunity to obtain research results before the tenure decision, and to enable currently funded researchers to maintain continuity in their research programs.

"The size of grants to individual and small groups of investigators should be increased to maintain the buying power of the average grant and to retain scientific talent in the United States."

Other recommendations include the nurturing of emerging interdisciplinary areas, the support of various K-undergraduate education initiatives, improving the representation of women and underrepresented minorities in CMMP, an evaluation of new research mechanisms to replace large industrial laboratories, the development of distributed national CMMP facilities, and support for state-of-the-art instrumentation and facilities. These "top-priority" facilities include next generation light sources, an instrumentation suite for the Spallation Neutron Source, the development of the next generation of electron microscopes, and continued support of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory.

The stakes are for the United States are high, the committee writing: "Without strong support for basic research, U.S. leadership in CMMP is unlikely to survive. Such a loss could cause the United States to miss critical opportunities in growing new markets, and could significantly hamper U.S. economic innovation. The recommendations of the CMMP 2010 committee focus on ensuring U.S. leadership in this intellectually exciting field that is technologically and economically vital to the nation." The report with the committee's full findings and recommendations may be viewed at: