Scholars Give Defense Dept. Failing Grade

By Sandra I. Erwin
The Pentagon’s science advisors confirmed in a recent study what other experts have been saying for a long time: The Defense Department has lost its luster as a technological innovator and has done a poor job managing research programs.

The scathing critique comes from an independent group of scientists from the nation’s top universities, including Nobel Prize winners, known as the Jasons. At the request of the Pentagon’s research and engineering office, the Jasons focused their summer 2008 report on the department’s science and technology programs.

A particularly weak spot for the Pentagon is its declining prestige as a sponsor of leading-edge science and technology, said the report.

The panel concluded that many scientists are souring on defense work as they see military research becoming far less influential to society. By comparison, during the Cold War and the heyday of the U.S. space program, military patronage helped to create many modern scientific disciplines.

Despite an annual budget of more than $11 billion for science and technology projects, the Defense Department is not attracting top talent, mostly because much of the scientific community is turning its attention to non-military fields that are considered more relevant to the world’s current challenges, such as energy, food, water, education and public health, said Dan McMorrow, director of the Jason program office. He discussed the preliminary findings of the Jasons’ summer study at a recent National Defense Industrial Association “Disruptive Technologies” conference in Washington, D.C.

“There has been a shift in the scientific topics of greatest interest to society,” McMorrow said. When Soviet military aggression was deemed the greatest threat to humanity, the science that was relevant to the Defense Department was considered important — nuclear physics, aerospace engineering, electrical and mechanical engineering, he said. An increased interest by scientists in areas that are not immediately relevant to the Defense Department is making it tougher for the Pentagon to attract talent.

The Pentagon’s “structurally weak” research organization also is driving away scientists, said McMorrow. “The Defense Department is not effective in coordinating and overseeing the basic research program and funding across the department.”

An alarming trend has been the decoupling of the Pentagon’s office that oversees defense research and engineering from the “cash flow” of the yearly budget process, he noted. As a result, science funding decisions largely are made by the individual military services or by members of Congress. “In some cases, the services have been able to redefine, or effectively eliminate, basic research activities within a single budget cycle,” said the Jasons’ report.

A case in point is the Office of Naval Research, said McMorrow. “During the past decade, ONR has shifted its basic research toward a short-term focus.” Further, the bureaucracy associated with defense research has “grown to consume ever more time and has diverted program managers into administrative formalities at the expense of scientific program oversight,” he added.

The Jasons made a case that successful research requires steady commitment and funding. “Stable funding is more productive than more funding,” said McMorrow. To the chagrin of many scientists, the Defense Department operates under a “war of the month” mentality that discourages long-term focus.

“Long-term research efforts cannot be turned on and off with yearly budget cycles and service rotations,” the study said. “The Defense Department needs to develop a culture where in-house science and research is valued as critical to the long term health of the department.”
The Jasons specifically lamented the diversion of funds from basic research, which is funded under the “6.1” budget line. “The 6.1 funding by the services has yielded to short-term pressures and drifted” to other areas such as upgrades of existing weapon systems, said the report. “The smaller and less urgent 6.1 work gets less attention.”

Proof of this misguided approach was seen in late 2003, when the Pentagon realized it lacked technologies to detect and neutralize the roadside bombs that have killed thousands of U.S. troops.

“The improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq is a telling example,” said the study. “Events on the ground demanded new tools and methods to counter IEDs — a tough problem.”

In response to the IED attacks, the Pentagon formed a new agency, the Joint IED Defeat Organization, or JIEDDO — to develop and acquire technologies, “but it was formed and funded too late,” said the report.

One reason the counter-IED effort was more difficult and less productive than it should have been is that the Pentagon lacked “links to relevant research communities,” said the Jasons. “Their establishment required major effort by senior JIEDDO staff, further delaying access to expertise.”

The lesson is that “well-established links between acquisition and research and between the Defense Department and the research community might have rapidly established a strategic plan necessary for an effective R&D effort,” the report said.

The Jasons also observed that the Pentagon’s short-term thinking has infused the defense industry as well. Scientists see a declining industrial base, said McMorrow. “Companies used to have great research programs to build things. That’s now moved overseas. Corporate research has gone away because of streamlining,” he said. “Scientists bemoan that.”

Another contributing factor to the loss of expertise is that within the military services, scientific talent is not rewarded, the Jasons noted.

“We concluded that the Defense Department is losing out in getting the smart people,” said McMorrow. “A career in science and technology is not a path to the highest ranks in the uniformed services.” Civilian career paths in the Defense Department research laboratories are not competitive in attracting outstanding young scientists and retaining the best people. Program managers have “too little time and incentive to maintain currency with, and connectivity to, the forefronts of their technical fields,” he said. As a result, “technical oversight of contractors is correspondingly handicapped.”

Allan Shaffer, director of plans and programs at the Defense Department’s research and engineering office, agreed that the Pentagon’s clout in the scientific world has diminished.

The decline may not be reversible, but it could be slowed down if the defense budget is spared from future cuts to science and technology programs, he said.

“In the early 1980s, the Defense Department invested 20 percent of the free world’s research. We are now down to 3 percent,” he said at the conference. A potential silver lining to these declining trends is that they provide strong evidence that science and technology funds should be preserved, if not increased, said Shaffer. “It makes for a much stronger argument that we have to stay engaged in the game.”

Topics: Bomb and Warhead, Improvised Explosive Devices, Science and Engineering Technology

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