‘Materials research’ (MR) is now an established research funding umbrella. But a great deal of confusion reigns as to whether or not it is anything more, and how it relates to teaching programs usually collected under the term ‘materials science and engineering’ (MSE). Perhaps the history of the field will help illuminate the problem, if not the solution. Before God made the heaven and earth, she had, in 16th century Europe, apparently made the academic ‘disciplines’! By whatever arcane process, these had evolved by the mid-20th century into fiefdoms within the major academic institutions of the Western world, complete with moats and drawbridges. Mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, geology — not only administratively convenient ways to break up knowledge-management and transmission — had arrogated to themselves the title ‘discipline’, allowing them to make the laws of the land, not least by strict control of employment, thereby assuring the purity (narrowness) of the faith (discipline). Unfortunately for the disciplines, and to society's detriment, this had little to do with nature or reality. Moreover, reality dominated the world of economics, the production of goods and services, and the materials technologies needed for that.

After WWII, in the laissez-faire US, the corporate world that was based on materials became increasingly concerned that the academic world of disciplines (including their taxpayer-supported research) did not map well onto the reality of their needs for educated, trained personnel. It was W.O. Baker, vice president of Bell Labs, and C.G. Suits of G.E. who, in the late 1950s, moved to assure that government funding for research, and training, matched more closely the reality-dictated needs of industry. Thus were born (from the Department of Defense) the largest contracts ever given to universities for the unambiguously named ‘Interdisciplinary Materials Research Laboratories’, the so-called IDMRLs. The concept was simple: bring together in teams, at the bench level, engineers and scientists from relevant disciplines to do research and supervise the training of students for advanced degrees in this intellectually hybridized environment. The year was 1959. Europe was not yet stirring.

Although some of us had anticipated and supported these initiatives (Penn State and Carnegie Mellon had made proposals in 1957), these ideas were totally foreign to mainstream academia. It also raised a separate question: what about changes in the teaching curriculum and the possible training of students in the same interdisciplinary field? Much thought and some experience later, most of us realized that this was a deeper question than funding and/or encouraging interdisciplinary research. Moreover, in academia there already existed some minor principalities (compared with the royal duchies of chemistry and physics): metallurgy and ceramics. These were, in fact, intrinsically MSE already: albeit, each covered less than a third of the territory. The other third, plastics, was inserted mainly by the force of its ‘arrival’ in industry long before ‘polymers’ appeared in academia. This forced the integration of these ‘departments’ into a slow development of MSE over two decades, with intermediates such as metallurgy and materials science on the way. (Clearly, implying that metallurgy was not the same as materials science, let alone its parent!)

Many years later, things are different. The driving forces, mainly money, which shape academic structures more than intellectual imperatives, have changed. The bloom — fortunately, in my materialistic [sic] view — is off the rose of astronomy and particle physics, which the science community used as the spearhead for extracting giga-funding from governments. Politicians are finally getting down to earth — and materials. Materials is developing a ‘halo’. We (and I confess some early complicity) have discovered 10−9. Some agencies have sold ‘nano’ as a US federal initiative for $0.5 giga/year. There's the rub — money talks, and shapes, academia. Nano has been linked scientifically largely to materials. Albeit every chemist working with ions in solutions has been working with nanoscience for centuries. Indeed, when I developed the solution-sol-gel process in 1948, little did I know I would provide the simplest universal route to a great range of nanomaterials!

Reallocation of money is again reshaping academia. This time physicists, chemists, and electrical engineers, all wanting a part of the nano-action, are claiming their share of ‘materials-X’. Sometimes X stands for scientists, sometimes engineers, and sometimes researchers. And that pinpoints the problem: the need for a clear distinction between MR and MSE. The former is research activity in which many ‘disciplines’ play a role. The latter is a discipline under which we give degrees. Put simply, MSE vs. MR. This key distinction was made in the first ever US and European conference on the status of the materials field, held in 1969 at Penn State*. Its importance cannot be overstated. Whether MSE has unified student learning about metals, ceramics, polymers, and electronic materials — the jury is still out. More on that later.

Read full text on ScienceDirect

DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(02)05304-X