Researchers from all 46 centers meet under one roof for two days
Evan Lafalce

On July 29th and 30th, hundreds of scientists, including graduate students, postdocs, and principal investigators, from universities and national labs across the country converged at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C., for the biennial Energy Frontier Research Centers Principal Investigators’ Meeting. This year’s meeting, occurring just days before the 10-year anniversary of the establishment of the first EFRCs, provided an opportunity for this unique community of scientists and administrators to reflect on the history and mission of the program, its achievements over the past decade, and the evolution of the challenges the EFRC program tackles as well as the future directions of its enterprises. Many themes that capture the essence of the EFRC program were repeatedly emphasized at plenary talks by senior administrators and patrons of scientific research.

The large gathering of EFRC PI meeting participants listen as DOE senior technical advisor Andy Schwartz presents at the first plenary session. Image Credit: DOE

Day one: the benefits of the EFRC program

One of the first of these themes to emerge was the importance of a long-term management plan that can provide stable and adequate funding to meet the nation’s energy goals. Department of Energy Under Secretary of Energy for Science, Paul M. Dabbar, kicked things off by describing some of the notable achievements since the inception of the concept of the EFRC program, including a 90% reduction in the cost of solar energy and a 100% increase in “green” energy capacity, referring to increased energy production from renewable sources such as solar and wind. He stressed the need for continuity in the focus of research through the years and among different scientific fields. In order to achieve this, the EFRC program provides the managerial organization to facilitate collaboration among research teams, funding agencies, and commercial enterprises and to maintain the culture of cross-disciplinary approach to science that the EFRCs foster. Andy Schwartz, a senior technical advisor for the EFRCs, followed with the story of the program’s inception, from a charge letter and workshop of the Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee in 2002 and 2003 to the formation of the initial 46 EFRCs in 2009.

Another theme of the meeting was the role of the EFRCs in removing the constraints of individual groups in different sectors through an integrated program combining the efforts and interests of businesses, academic researchers, and policy makers. Norman Augustine of Lockheed Martin Corporation reminisced about the previous state of scientific funding that had motivated him and several other CEOs of American companies to press for a more ambitious top-down approach to managing scientific research for the benefit of the country. He noted the small fraction of GDP that is invested in scientific research despite its overwhelming benefits to new product and productivity growth. He pointed to the short-term focus of private investors on quarterly profits that discourages long-term investment in science and technology. In addition, Augustine observed how the narrow focus of scientists on their own research also tends to stress the short-term benefits and omits advocacy for the importance of scientific research in general and its impact on each and every citizen.

Esther Takeuchi, a professor at Stony Brook University and Director of the Center for Mesoscale Transport Properties, drew on her experience in both academic and industrial research to highlight the importance of bringing scientists out of the silos of their traditional disciplines and working at the intersection of different fields to solve problems and generate new technologies. She emphasized the need for great leadership, a quality which she said results from experience, but particularly from many distinct experiences. She pointed out the mutual benefits of collaboration between academic universities, national labs, and businesses. For instance, students at universities have the opportunity to interact with multiple PIs, national labs can train and recruit future staff, and businesses obtain reductions in overhead costs for research and development and gain access to expert minds.

The first day also included several discussion panels composed of current and former EFRC scientists and DOE administrators. The first of these question and answer sessions featured panelists from the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and the Office of Electricity. The discussion focused on DOE’s efforts to bring scientists and industry leaders together to implement new technologies or find new uses for established technologies. The numerous PIs in attendance received advice regarding best practices and good first points of contact in order to transition a basic research idea into a more applied research program within the DOE enterprise."

The next two panel discussions featured current and previous EFRC scientists who were asked about how their experiences as members of EFRC teams shaped their career paths afterwards. Common themes were the unique benefit of working on interdisciplinary teams where experimentalists work with theorists to employ multiple techniques and approaches and the importance of networking in career advancement. Some panelists described their experiences starting their own businesses based on discoveries made as part of an EFRC, providing a unique perspective and first-hand advice for the early career scientists in attendance.

Meeting participants gather at the Early Career Network Diversity lunch and share their professional and personal experiences as well as establish connections across diverse backgrounds and research activities. Image Credit: DOE

Day two: the ERFC scientists’ turn to shine

Another prevalent motif throughout the meeting was the diversity of research projects that can impact U.S. energy production, storage, transmission, and use. This was impossible to ignore as talks from principal investigators from the 46 EFRCs were divided into eight parallel sessions arranged by topics that spanned a diverse range, from Bioinspired Science to Materials Chemistry and Design, Nuclear Energy, Energy Storage, and Quantum Materials. In addition to covering such a broad range of topics, the talks differed quite a bit from one another in format, with some presenters sharing overviews of the research being pursued within their centers, and others choosing one particularly exciting new development or achievement with high potential to shape the energy landscape. These achievements themselves stem from a wide range of fields, from newly developed solar energy harvesting materials, to improved understanding of the deterioration of materials for nuclear waste containment, and new materials and devices to generate low-power consumption memories for computers.

Researchers present posters describing the highlights of their achievements to an enthusiastic crowd of meeting attendees. Image Credit: DOE

Several talks also featured postdocs and students, including the 15 teams of students and postdocs who were finalists in the Team Science Contest. The poster sessions where graduate students, postdocs, and professors displayed specific aspects of their work were also popular. Attendees packed in shoulder to shoulder between rows of posters with authors standing at their sides eager to explain their work. The hall was filled with a loud hum of excited chatter as scientists exchanged ideas, anecdotes, and contact information.

The meeting, like the EFRCs themselves, also provided a great forum for the many participants to establish professional connections. During breaks and lunches throughout, the attendees huddled around coffee and refreshments or dining tables to discuss the presentations they had just seen and the most recent breakthroughs or roadblocks in their research, or simply made small talk with new acquaintances. These moments made for great opportunities to engage in the networking and trans-disciplinary discussions that were repeatedly emphasized in the panel discussions.

The EFRC PI meeting is certainly unlike most scientific gatherings, bringing together many different fields of science and engineering in order to achieve a multi-faceted approach to solving problems related to energy. It is fast-paced, packing a lot of activity into just two days. As told by all those involved, it is this juxtaposition of diversity of expertise with singularity of purpose, of research, and industrial integration coordinated under a single center, that makes the EFRCs unique, effective, and exhilarating to be a part of.

About the author(s):

Evan Lafalce is a research assistant professor at the University of Utah, Department of Physics & Astronomy, working under Z. Valy Vardeny. He is a member of the Center for Hybrid Organic Inorganic Semiconductors for Energy (CHOISE), where he studies the optical, electronic, and spin properties of hybrid organic-inorganic lead-halide perovskites. He obtained his Ph.D. in applied physics from the University of South Florida in Tampa, where he characterized organic solar cells and organic solar cell materials. He was born in Baltimore, Maryland.