Warren Hunt
MGI at Three: A Strategy Emerges
Warren HuntJune 25, 2014

Last week marked the third anniversary of the launch of the Materials Genome Initiative (MGI). Since my blog post on MGI’s last birthday, the initiative has taken a number of steps—highlighted in the official White House press release—toward its ultimate goal of revitalizing American manufacturing. Of these, the most significant accomplishment in my mind is the issuance of a draft for public comment of the Materials Genome Initiative Strategic Plan.

The plan, authored by the Subcommittee for the Materials Genome Initiative (SMGI), a group led by co-chairs from the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Department of Energy (DOE), aims to “outline the near-term steps the Federal government will take to achieve the vision put forth by MGI.” While government action is just one part of the MGI equation that also must include academia, industry, and professional societies, it is certainly an important step in the right direction.

The core of the plan revolves around four major goals, with supporting objectives and milestones that assign responsibility to one or more agency or interagency groups. These goals (and my take on them) include:

  1. Enable a Paradigm Shift in Culture– This goal aims to encourage and facilitate an integrated team approach in the materials research field that engages the entire materials community across engineering and scientific disciplines, academic departments, and industries and links theory, modeling, and experiments throughout the entire R&D continuum, from fundamental research through the design, optimization, and manufacturing phases. Key milestones include increasing the number of researchers and projects and creating enhanced interactions through meetings and joint efforts. These actions hopefully will encourage a more unified and consistent approach to true community engagement than we have seen to date.
  2. Integrate Experiments, Computation, and Theory – This goal aims to not only more seamlessly integrate experiments, computation, and theory, but also to better equip the materials community with the advanced tools and techniques they need to work across materials classes—specifically, accurate and reliable simulations, improved experimental tools, and data analytics. Most of the key milestones for this goal involve gathering information and making more targeted plans through workshops and studies, which needs near-term attention in order to lay the groundwork for progress. An intriguing objective of this goal is the establishment of an MGI “Network of Resources,” which would include an “information inventory” as well as a pilot effort to network research groups in the structural materials area.
  3. Facilitate Access to Materials Data – Materials data is typically widely dispersed, not well-pedigreed, and often restricted by proprietary considerations—issues widely recognized in the materials community (it has already been the focus of an earlier NIST workshop and a number of other efforts). This goal aims to address the materials data challenge by facilitating access to materials data through the creation of accessible, searchable material data repositories that include both experimental and computational data and by encouraging researchers to make their data available to others. The plan rightfully suggests that workshops should be conducted to identify the needs in this area as well as the barriers and methods to overcome them. This is another near-term action that needs to take place sooner rather than later.
  4. Equip the Next-Generation Materials Workforce – This goal focuses exclusively on improving academic education at the undergraduate and graduate levels to produce a highly trained workforce. I especially like the objective of providing opportunities for integrated research experiences, which will engage students directly in team projects and ideally include industrial partners. However, surprisingly absent from this goal are objectives around professional education. The current workforce will be providing the majority of the resources for the near and medium term in implementing MGI approaches, and could be a barrier to adoption if they do not have the understanding and tools to contribute effectively.

I was pleased to see that the plan’s goals, milestones, and objectives took into account the results  from the two Grand Challenges workshops held in 2013, which gathered input from diverse members of the community including academia, industry, and government on needs and opportunities in seven specific materials groups. Although the overall plan is more directional than quantitative, the resulting materials-specific approach—which recognizes the diversity of material classes and the communities involved with them and includes materials-specific targets—is critical to the broader MGI umbrella efforts that will generate real progress.

SMGI is requesting public input on the plan by July 21. I encourage those of you in the community, especially from industry, to read the full plan and respond with your own assessment. Your input will not only assist in guiding the plan’s further development and implementation, but will also help us as a community take one more step toward the innovative future envisioned by the Materials Genome Initiative.