Best and the Brightest Forge a Way Ahead

By Dr. Mark J. Lewis

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NDIA created the Emerging Technologies Institute with the overarching goal of delivering critical new technologies into the hands of our warfighters. To do that, it is very clear that there is a list of technologies that will have, and in many cases are already having, a transformative impact on the future of warfare.

But it isn’t enough to merely advocate for those broad technology areas; equally important is focusing the Defense Department’s precious research-and-development dollars on the right projects that will have the biggest payoffs.

Not every idea in artificial intelligence, or directed energy, or even hypersonics, will make sense from a practical standpoint, or even from an operator’s point of view. Every dollar spent on bad science or a dead end is a wasted dollar that could have been spent on something more useful.

That is why it is important to be skeptical, in a scientifically rigorous way, of even the most promising-sounding ideas. We need to take risks; and indeed, America’s willingness to invest in high-risk, high-payoff science has been one of the keys to our scientific and technological prowess. But there is a difference between investing in risky ideas and things that are just plain dumb.

In her classic book Imaginary Weapons, author Sharon Weinberger explored the world of Pentagon science, including an examination of how fringe ideas sometimes get funded by mainstream defense organizations. Though her work is full of comedic elements, including descriptions of actual half-baked research projects that a well-educated high-school physics student would have recognized as absurd, it carries the somber warning that there is at times a “fuzzy line between heartfelt conviction and obsessive delusion.”

Weinberger highlights defense programs that had very little scientific grounding but were still funded at significant levels, showing that when credentialed experts raised concerns they were often ignored.

In sorting through the myriad proposals and pitched concepts, the Defense Department must be able to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff, zeroing in on the most promising ideas and avoiding the ones that are infeasible, impractical, or downright impossible.

This creates an extremely difficult challenge: err on the side of being too conservative and a scientific portfolio can stagnate; but allow bad science a foothold and that portfolio becomes significantly diminished in both quality and impact. That is why we need to populate the ranks of defense program managers and scientific leaders with the best and brightest minds.

Our people making research investment decisions and guiding the defense research enterprise must themselves have the technical prowess to enable sound scientific reasoning. Fortunately, the department has attracted a cadre of extremely talented professionals in places such as the Air Force Research Laboratory, Office of Naval Research, Army Research Laboratory and DARPA, to name a few. Maintaining the quality of that workforce and ensuring that top students in our colleges of engineering and science consider careers in national defense mut be a priority.

This includes not just bench scientists working in Defense Department laboratories and industry, but acquisition professionals and senior scientific leadership at the highest levels in the services and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, including civilians and those in uniform.

And having attracted those credentialed scientists and engineers, it is important that we retain them with appropriate recognition and by creating career paths that encourage their contributions. Sadly, this last point is something that could be greatly improved across the department.

Finally, it also means that the Defense Department must bring in outside expertise, with the various review boards and expert panels, as well as the federally funded and university affiliated R&D centers, and rely upon their observations and recommendations. And though it may sound self-serving, independent organizations such as the Emerging Technologies Institute can play an important role in helping to formulate a path ahead.

On the topic of hiring the best and the brightest, I am absolutely delighted to announce that by the time you read this column Dr. Arun Seraphin will have joined ETI as its deputy director. Seraphin is a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-educated PhD in material science, who has worked on the staffs of both the House and Senate, and had a leadership role in the White House office of science and technology policy. He has had a profound impact on nearly every element of Defense S&T, with a special focus on the workforce and small business.
Please join me in welcoming Arun to ETI and the NDIA family, and look forward to his future contributions to this column.

Dr. Mark J. Lewis is the executive director of NDIA’s Emerging Technologies Institute.

Topics: Emerging Technologies

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