Research is central to the modern university. Universities attract the most gifted graduate students, postdocs, and junior faculty from all over the world by promising resources and an environment where they can carry out world-class research and launch fulfilling careers. Curiosity-driven, single-investigator research is the cornerstone of new discoveries and constitutes the foundation upon which most innovative technologies are built. Multidisciplinary, vertically-integrated, collaborative research with industry participation brings into focus promising technologies and facilitates commercialization. Partnerships that include industry, universities, and national labs are routinely assembled by mission-oriented agencies to attack ambitious projects with relevance to national security. The U.S. can pride itself on a meritocratic system of research support whereby universities and their investigators routinely compete but also collaborate and where resources are channeled in the most promising directions.
In microelectronics, the record of accomplishments by U.S. universities is unmatched. Fundamental research in advanced lithography, strain engineering, scaled transistors, wide bandgap semiconductors, THz devices, MEMS, 2D materials and devices, circuits and systems, AI hardware, among many examples, has fueled a long pipeline of technological innovations with tremendous economic significance. U.S. universities have contributed to this extraordinarily expensive enterprise by pooling resources and creating and managing shared facilities that can support a broad range of fabrication processes and materials.
As distinguished as that record is, U.S. universities confront mounting challenges to their relevance in the face of outsized investments by other countries. A widening chasm has been growing for some time between university facilities and the state-of-the-art tools and processes used in industry. Not only is the maximum wafer diameter that university facilities can handle in multi-step fabrication mismatched with industry (at best, 150 mm vs. 300 mm, see Appendix A) but the performance, productivity and reliability of the university toolsets is in decline. This greatly limits competitiveness, inhibits collaborations with industry or national labs, and compromises technology translation. At the heart of this problem are aging facilities, obsolete tools, unaffordable equipment service plans, and inadequate technical staff support.
Universities attract the most gifted graduate students, postdocs, and junior faculty from all over the world by promising resources and an environment where they can carry out world-class research and launch fulfilling careers
To compound the difficulties of operating in this resource-starved environment, many research contracts do not cover the true cost of research that requires large integrated facilities with multi-step semiconductor fabrication processes. Faculty, in their role as university facility administrators, must devote substantial efforts to raising additional resources within or outside the university to make ends meet. A culture of scarcity permeates the whole operation.
What can be done? The U.S. urgently needs a national plan of investment in both human and capital infrastructure. Appropriate emphasis needs to be given to establishing 200-mm wafer diameter capabilities, the “sweet spot” for collaborations with industry and national labs and for technology translation today (see Appendix A). Sustained investments are required to keep the facilities relevant, including mechanisms that provide stable support for equipment service plans and technical staff. A national coordination body should be established to provide users across the country (not just research universities but also colleges, community colleges, startups, corporations, and national labs) with agile access to many university facilities across the U.S. as well as unique resources such as a national 300-mm R&D center (National Semiconductor Technology Center).
Research programs need to be expanded and their costs fully covered. Essential also is the establishment of a healthy mix of single-investigator grants, multi-disciplinary vertically-integrated programs, and collaborative university/industry/national lab initiatives over a broad intellectual front in a competitive, meritocratic framework that supports a diverse community of researchers and students