A new organization from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Directorate for Engineering seeks to change the way engineering research priorities are developed.
By Christine Coolick, SWE Contributor
The new Engineering Research Visioning Alliance (ERVA) is the first organization of its kind. Established through a five-year, $8 million cooperative agreement with the NSF, ERVA aims to identify and develop new engineering research directions — and do so in a representative way that ensures all voices are at the table when priority recommendations are made.
“This is not a classic collaborative research program in the sense that we know them,” said Dorota Grejner-Brzezinska, Ph.D., ERVA principal investigator and senior associate vice president for research – corporate and government partnerships at The Ohio State University. “NSF envisioned ERVA as a means to essentially unify the engineering community to enable them to speak in one voice.”
ERVA is tasked with prioritizing the next generation of engineering research that will transform outcomes for important societal problems — utilizing processes that value inclusivity and collaboration across disciplines.
“We are intentionally diverse,” said Dr. Grejner-Brzezinska. “Diversity in any dimension is a driving factor in developing the organization.”
ERVA’s ultimate goal is to identify topics for new research that will have important beneficial impacts on pressing societal challenges — but the processes they use to identify them are just as critical to its mission. To do this, ERVA plans to bring together the nation’s top minds in engineering to create the framework for deciding the most pressing challenges that engineering research should take on — therein recommending what NSF’s engineering research funding priorities should be. Currently, NSF funds more than 40% of fundamental engineering research at U.S. academic institutions.
Tackling Today’s — and the Future’s — Pressing Challenges
ERVA seeks to bring the entire engineering community together to envision high-impact solutions to society’s grand challenges, as well as spark new research directions that can make the world more secure and more sustainable.
Its primary task will be to convene multidisciplinary groups to determine those themes of the next generation of engineering research, and also help develop programs, policies, and collaborations to support investments that address critical national and global challenges. From the priorities selected for further study, ERVA will develop topical task forces of interdisciplinary domain experts to develop recommendations through visioning events.
For the Good of Economic Competitiveness
Ultimately, ERVA’s effectiveness is meant to help the United States stay at the forefront of research and innovation — and therefore keep the nation’s economy competitive. Leading the global economy requires a fast pace of scientific and technological discoveries — which need continual, substantive support and constant evolution.
“The ultimate objective of any research advancement or translation is to impact the economy and improve societal well-being,” said Dr. Grejner-Brzezinska. “Engineering research is an integral part to the development of products that we use in everyday life, as well as in the processes for scaling up to mass production. Important to ERVA’s impact to the economy is this: We ensure the diversity of voices, as you need to have different voices to really provide effective solutions to all the complex challenges and problems, which will in the end impact society, the economy, and also national security.”
An Inclusive Organizational Structure
Announced in April 2021, ERVA is team managed through representatives from three founding partners: the Big Ten Academic Alliance, a higher education consortium of the nation’s top-tier research institutions; the EPSCoR/IDeA Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes science and technology enterprise through improving university research infrastructure and increasing research competitiveness among historically underfunded states; and the University-Industry Demonstration Partnership, (UIDP), an organization that identifies issues impacting university-industry relations and opportunities to develop new approaches to working together.
ERVA will bring together stakeholders from government, academia, industry, professional societies, and members of the public to create the engineering research community’s “unified voice.” The new organization hopes to provide a pathway for all who are interested to participate in defining new engineering research directions and influence national research priorities.
The organization also includes ethicists, physical and life scientists, and those in the social and behavioral sciences and arts and humanities to ensure any pursuit of technological progress considers the potential for unintended societal consequences.
ERVA’s structure includes a 10-member advisory board and 35-member standing council that comprises thought leaders from all engineering and neighboring disciplines, which will provide input for visioning activities. ERVA also has an executive committee, an operations team, topical task forces, and working groups.
“ERVA is really a network of networks,” Dr. Grejner-Brzezinska noted. “And we will continue growing because we understand that inclusion and cross-disciplinarity is the key.”
Diversity at the Front and Center
ERVA’s model hopes the convergence of diverse perspectives, cross-disciplinary collaborations, and multisector approach will amplify critical efforts to solve modern society’s most challenging problems.
“To identify nascent research topics, we have to be able to see around the corner, and it’s hardly one person or one single field of research that will be able to do that,” said Dr. Grejner-Brzezinska. “The NSF engineering directorate recognized the value in bringing together the diverse voices of engineering to conduct visioning and ideation in concert rather than separately. ERVA’s mission is to convene those diverse voices.”
The partnership that makes up ERVA’s structure intentionally represents the diversity of thought across engineering’s spectrum. “We are not just the Big 10,” said Dr. Grejner-Brzezinska. “We fully understand that in order to provide a vision for all of engineering and engineering-plus, we need much more than the top 10 programs in the nation.” She noted the clear value of the EPSCoR/IDeA Foundation’s role on the team, which represents more than 300 universities, many of them minority-serving institutions. And UIDP brings the industry sector — and its keen interest in innovation — to the organization.
ERVA wants diversity by all counts: representation from industry, nonprofits, academia, and national labs; all levels of career and academic advancement; diversity of thought; and diversity in backgrounds of individuals represented, in terms of gender, ethnicity, race, geography, and experience.
“The idea that manifests into the exact solution the U.S. needs will likely come from a voice that does not have a seat at the table today,” said Charles Johnson-Bey, Ph.D., ERVA co-principal investigator and senior vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton, in a statement. “That is the reason why ERVA has representation from all 50 states and three U.S. territories.”
To help find thought leaders, up and comers, and those doing some of the most interesting research in their fields right now, ERVA is collaborating with Elsevier to serve as its research intelligence partner to identify a wide range of experts.
Ideation is Key
While ERVA could spotlight the areas of engineering research that should be activated, it is not structured to be a direct source of engineering research funding. Rather, its role is to catalyze the engineering research community’s pursuit of innovative, high-impact research by identifying and communicating new research visions.
ERVA will convene stakeholders and the general public for topic-based task forces to offer insight for new research directions. Those directions will be identified after ERVA holds its first visioning and ideation sessions, but expectations are that some of the initial focus will take cues from NSF’s current lineup of “Big Ideas”; the priorities of the current administration: climate, energy, and infrastructure; and the “industries of the future,” including quantum information science, artificial intelligence, advanced communications, synthetic biology, and smart mobility.
ERVA also seeks to build out its networks through individuals signing up to be ERVA “champions,” relevant organizations and societies becoming ERVA affiliate partners, holding blue-sky visioning sessions at society conferences, and even through crowdsourcing ideas.
“The bottom line for ERVA’s ultimate success would be how well we are able to use our visioning and ideation engine to rapidly respond to new areas of interest brought by NSF and possibly other agencies.”
– Dr. Grejner-Brzezinska
“How quickly can we identify a representative group of the right experts in a given topic area of interest, convene them for a visioning event, and report back to NSF? That’s the question and measure of our success.”
Designed as a “network of networks,” as Dr. Grejner-Brzezinska calls it, ERVA’s model is meant to scan all thought leaders and interested parties to ensure the best team is created.
In its first year, ERVA will develop a strategic plan, host informational webinars and visioning events, and hold an inaugural symposium.
“By bringing different voices and partnerships, we really will come up with solid solutions,” said Dr. Grejner-Brzezinska. “And solutions would probably be created much faster than solving smaller problems in silos and then trying to bring them together. When it starts as a team, you work as a team, and you successfully have the system approach to solving a problem — and that’s most effective.”
Learn more at ERVAcommunity.org.