Linda Sapochak shares insights on the National Science Foundation’s Division of Materials Research – what has been done, what projects are ongoing, and opportunities for the future.  The new director Dr. Panchanathan has bold plans for the future of DMR and several key programs will be instrumental in carrying them out – the Materials Genome Initiative, Materials Research Science and Engineering, and Designing Materials to Revolutionize and Engineer our Future.  Linda has been spearheading ‘square tables’ for better communication and dialogue between funders, scientists, and engineers to accelerate progress and share data.  She encourages interested parties to contact her and the NSF about these programs and the square table initiatives if they think it will be beneficial for them.


Presentation: NSF Division of Materials Research: Where Materials Begin and Society Benefits

  • DMR – Division of Materials Research
    New Director Dr. Sethuraman Panchanathan
    Emphasis on forming Partnerships, reaching out to People, and Translating research into action
  • Materials are enablers of technology, and will underlie the advancement of things like Quantum Information Science, Artificial Intelligence, Advanced Wireless, Biotechnology, and Advanced Manufacturing.
  • The Executive Office is keen on enhancing the Materials Genome Initiative, estimating the value of improved materials innovation at $123-$270 Billion per year.  The Endless Frontiers act will assist with the NSF vision of research translation.
  • Materials science isn’t its own domain but rather a fusion of all sorts of other domains.  It is based in Mathematical and Physical Sciences but is also supported by Engineering, Education, Bioscience, and Computer Science.
  • This is an overview of DMR.  Our budget is ~$330 million.  It has the most diverse types of interdisciplinary programs, and support national facilities like the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, Center for High Resolution Neutron Scattering, and Center for High-Energy X-ray Sciences.
  • MRSEC – Materials Research Science and Engineering.  First centers program at NSF, developed by DARPA, transferred to NSF.  DMR was created around the centers program and promote interdisciplinary research.
  • PREM – Partnerships for Research and Educational Materials.  Grants for minority serving institutions.
  • DMREF – Designing Materials to Revolutionize and Engineer our Future.  Will talk about later.
  • Topical Materials Research Programs – Condensed Matter and Materials Theory, Condensed Matter Physics, Solid-State and Materials Chemistry, Electronic and Photonic Materials, Biomaterials, Metals and Metallic Nano-structures, Polymers, and Ceramics
  • MPS and DMR launched two programs – LEAPS and ASCEND for pre-tenure faculty and postdoc fellows related to covid research.
  • Major Research Instrumentation – up to $4 million
  • MRSEC – up to $100 million
  • To address the gap, midscale research infrastructure programs were created.
  • We have also co-invested with computer science directorate to create cyberinfrastructure.
  • Future Manufacturing solicitation is winding down.
  • AI Research Institutes – using synthetic biology to advance semiconductor technology.
  • National AI Research Institutes – one category supported by chemistry which may be relevant for this group.
  • If you want to add AI activities to current NSF work, supplements are available for specific ideas listed, as well as Early-concept Grants for Exploratory Research and Research Advanced by Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering.
  • MGI and NNI (National Nanotechnology Initiative) had largest influence on materials research in the last decade.  There has been a lot of emphasis on sustainability and polymer research.
  • MGI – Materials Genome Initiative.  10 years old.  We need to do a better job at at integrating and iterating our information between computation and experiment, then use the digital data to do better at sharing.  We will try to unify the materials innovation infrastructure.
  • DMREF – Designing Materials to Revolutionize and Engineer our Future.  It includes math, chemistry, engineering, and computer science.
  • Air force research laboratory and Air force office of scientific research also collaborated.  It’s completely material agnostic – may be about developing something that doesn’t exist or taking existing materials and further developing them.
  • Materials Innovation Platform – DMREF on steroids – iterating between computation and experiment, and building a community around a problem.  Samples, know-how, and tools available for labs across the country.
  • Engaging the community in biotechnology using Square Tables.  Collaboration between Biomaterials, Funding Agencies, Synbio community, and regulators occurred to advance discovery, development, decommission, and deployment. 
  • Met with EBRC – Engineering Biology Research Consortium – to support their roadmap of engineering materials for biology.
  • Another square table, working with national cancer institute.  Multiple scientific communities along with funding agencies collaborated and learned about different perspectives about cancer.
  • Thank you, I’m available for questions now.


NSF has been supporting AI institutes, what are your thoughts on the opportunities when we combine automation, high throughput experimentation, and active machine learning? Also, some fields have made progress on inverse design, asking what property is desired and working backward to the material. The field of nanophotonics has made use of inverse design. Are we getting closer to that long term challenge and are there investments that NSF and other funding agencies could be making to accelerate inverse design?

  • The federal agencies behind the materials genome initiative are also behind supporting the things you’ve talked about. All the things you’ve talked about are addressed in the new MGI strategic plan. There’s two aspects here – one is to use computation to design things faster, another is if you design something and move it down the development continuum. Those problems are interlinked. You need to have the ability to use AI machine learning in all sectors of material development. We need to have active sharing of data, a place to put it, and people to know its there. You have to know it’s reliable data. The agency is working on this especially with respect to materials. There is very strong support for MGI and the vision behind MGI, and all the things you’ve mentioned underlie that. There are going to be more opportunities to support connecting the things you are talking about and that’s going to take more cooperation with engineering.
  • You will see more, especially when the strategic plan comes out.


We heard about the cable program a couple weeks ago, I was wondering if this department is involved in cable. It used to be called covetics, its the mixture of carbon and metals.

  • No I’m not familiar with that program. [It’s part of DOE]. There needs to be better cooperation, we do try to connect but it’s not easy. One of the first thing Dr. Paunch did was meet with all other organization leaders.


Whats the point of entry for your network of projects? When I look at the variety of what we are doing and the variety of what you are doing, I don’t know where to start.

  • The DMREF Program accomidates any type of materials research. That’s probably the best place for a team to start. I’m always happy to talk to anybody about doing things. Square table activies are a good way of getting ideas across. Let me know what you need support in and I can point you in the right direction.


If we have multiple applications to join multidisciplinary teams, are we expected to have a senior colleague to lead the effort? DMR has limited submissions per PI, how does this play into the applications?

  • Experience doesn’t matter as much as expertise, I wouldn’t be afraid to come in without a senior person on your proposal. We have an open window policy for topical research – you can submit one TMRP proposal per year, but you can also submit one to every other department as well. People will submit constantly, so that’s why we limited the window, so please submit your best one.


Can you give examples of synthetic biology work?


The ADAPT program with John Schlueter, can you tell us more about that?

  • If there are researchers who want to send their student to learn about AI, or a PI wants to add a collaborator to add AI to their data, that’s what that’s meant to be.
  • If you see folks who are interested in doing these things who don’t have enough access, we could do a square table on AI as well.



Can you explain a little more about DMREF (Designing Materials to Revolutionize and Engineer our Future)?

  • That program was created because too many experimenters were working in silos, and not enough collaboration was happening. The goal is to iterate knowledge at all levels of development. It’s a team program to encourage teamwork using the MGI approach to advance discovery, development, and deployment of materials faster. We also have large meetings to connect PI’s with outside agencies such as NISC or NASA.



What is the future outlook of NSF, and how can this group help with your goals?

  • We do studies on behalf of the taxpayers, and our priorities come from them. Aligning research to have an impact on what society needs is important. Also, you need to be vocal, and let us know what you want to see. NSF is your partner – we don’t work for you, but we depend on other organizations to give expertise on topics they have experience in.


Seminar summary by Aaron King.