Panel Paper: Centrality As a Mechanism for Coordinated Problem Solving in Energy Frontier Research Centers

Saturday, November 8, 2014 : 9:30 AM
Estancia (Convention Center)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Jonah Bea-Taylor, Alexander Smith, Samson Lai, Nabil Kleinhenz and Rebecca Hill, Georgia Institute of Technology
The global challenges surrounding energy have motivated a new perspective on how energy research is best conducted. President Obama’s prioritization of new energy technology development prompted the US Department of Energy (DOE) to create a new form of energy research institution – the Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC). Whereas DOE energy research had been primarily conducted at government national laboratories or through small grants to academic laboratories, the new energy challenges were seen as requiring multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional, collaborative research efforts. EFRCs were thus assembled as groups of scientists from multiple universities and national laboratories with the goal of promoting cross-institutional collaboration in solving key energy-related scientific challenges. Each awarded EFRC proposal received between $2 million and $5 million for 5 years, starting in October of 2009; the EFRCs will soon be under review for renewal of their funding.

                While the EFRC model has been praised for offering a new modality of energy research, the design of EFRC the model has also been criticized by academic researchers. In a research note published in 2011, Craig Boardman and Branco Ponomariov warned that the organizational structures of EFRCs could undermine the goals of the DOE. This claim was derived from a long stream of literature on University Research Centers (URCs), of which EFRCs are a recent form, which identifies three key mechanisms necessary to coordinate problem solving among URC researchers: (1) formal governance structures, (2) resource interdependence, and (3) goal congruence. Boardman and Ponomariov pointed out that EFRCs lack all three of these mechanisms. Formal governance structures are missing from EFRCs, being comprised of voluntary groups of scientists from different universities that are not substantively bound to the decisions of the EFRC’s leadership. Resource interdependence appeared absent from EFRCs, as well, given that affiliated scientists receive relatively little funding from the EFRC and are capable of carrying on research without involvement from the EFRC. Finally, the multidisciplinary and multi-institutional nature of EFRCs challenged the possibility for goal congruence among affiliated scientists.  While praising the DOE for developing EFRCs as a new modality for fostering energy research, Boardman and Ponomariov urged greater scrutiny of this new modality’s design.

                Our study seeks to begin answering Boardman and Ponomariov’s call for an analysis of EFRCs. We study the impact of EFRC centralization, which Boardman and Panomariov argue is a substitute for formal governance structures, upon the collaborative behavior of the Principal Investigator scientists (PIs) responsible for founding the EFRC. EFRCs with varying levels of centrality and similar levels of funding and personnel are selected. We use a field-text tool called VantagePoint to perform a bibliometric analysis of the publications made by these PIs, giving particular attention to co-authorship patterns as measures of collaboration. The quality of the work being published is also estimated by cross-referencing these publications with data from the Wiley Journal Citations Report, in order to measure whether work performed by EFRC PIs was able to get in to higher-impact journals.