Materials Research Activities

History of Materials Research: Institutions


National agencies have prompted much of the initial push to initiate materials generic research, most prominently in the ARPA funding of interdisciplinary laboratories. More recently, the National Nanotechnology Initiative has provided a large amount of funding and similar national programs are being discussed elsewhere. Government research institutions such as the Danish Institute of Fundamental Metrology and the (US) National Institute of Science and Technology also have an impact.

Academic institutions have remained the main loci for materials research but less so than was the case for, say, physics 100 years ago. Several interdisciplinary laboratories developed into or spawned university departments, most often termed Materials Science & Engineering. The history of these departments is complex in that their subject matter has overlapped in various ways with those of physics, chemistry, chemical and electrical engineering, to name but the most prominent. The local characteristics of each university has meant that materials research has been configured differently from place to place. Indeed, many universities harbor research that may well be regarded as "materials research" without hosting a department or institution carrying "materials" in its name - this is especially true outside the US.

Corporate research is an integral part of Materials Research. The field defines itself in opposition to the pure-applied distinction that was used to characterize science 50 years ago. Basic, fundamental research is seen as combined with a view to the end-users. A tetragon with four equivalent corners: structure, properties, performance, and synthesis/processing has been used prominently to characterize the field's equal and simultaneous emphasis on the pure and applied aspects of science, thus in the process rendering the distinction (between pure and applied) itself non-sensical. A substantial portion of attendants at the meetings of the Materials Research Society come from the private sector (more than a third, ten years ago almost one half). Thus a history of materials research must pay include corporate research.

The Materials Research Society is arguably the single most important organization in the history of materials research now. It was founded in 1973 and has had an impact primarily through the very successful two annual meetings that now attract some 3-4000 attendants. It is a de facto US organization that has set up an International Union of Materials Research Societies, the other members of which are Australian, Chinese, European, Argentinian, Indian, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Singaporean, Taiwanese, and Mexican. But because of the protean nature of the field, physics, chemistry and engineering associations have played a role too.

This page was last updated on 9 February 2004 by Arne Hessenbruch.