During the last several decades, interdisciplinary research centers have emerged as a standard, powerful tool for federal funding of university research. This paper contends that this organizational model can be traced to the “Interdisciplinary Laboratories” program funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency in 1960. The novelty of the IDL program was that it created a peer group of university laboratories with sustained funding to ensure their institutional stability. The Cornell Materials Science Center, one of the first three Interdisciplinary Laboratories, served as a breeding ground for a new community of engineering faculty members, who subsequently helped establish a series of interdisciplinary research centers at Cornell, including the National Research and Resource Facility for Submicron Structures (or National Submicron Facility) in 1977. The Materials Science Center and National Submicron Facility provided explicit models for the expansion and coordination of networks of interdisciplinary centers, both within single universities (such as Cornell) and across multiple campuses (through programs such as the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network and the Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers). The center model has proved both flexible and durable in the face of changing demands on universities. By examining the Materials Science Center and the National Submicron Facility, we show that recent institutional developments perceived as entirely novel have their roots in the high Cold War years.

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