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Defense Basic Research Program: Report from Defense Science Board and House Hearing

Richard M. Jones
Number 41 - March 19, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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Summarizing the results of its review and analysis, the Defense Science Board Task Force on Basic Research stated:

“DOD [Department of Defense] can dominate the world's military organizations in being able to use basic research results to create new and enhanced military capabilities, by dint of financial resources, infrastructure and national culture -- if DOD can overcome the immense burden of its acquisition system, and if DOD pays sufficient attention to worldwide basic research. In principle, worldwide basic research could benefit DOD disproportionally among global armed forces.”

The Defense Science Board provides independent advice to the Secretary of Defense.  The 13 member task force, chaired by Craig Fields and Lydia Thomas, issued its report in December, which just became available.

The task force was charged with examining the quality of DOD’s 6.1 basic research program and offering strategies and recommendations to improve it.  Its findings were quite positive, with co-chairs Fields and Thomas writing in a memorandum to the Board’s chairman “overall, the task force found the current DOD basic research program to be a very good one, comparable to other basic research programs in the government and well-suited to DoD needs.”  A nine-page Executive Summary provides a good overview of the 132-page report.  The task force praised the “impressive qualifications” of the basic research program managers, concluded that “myriad formal mechanisms in place for assessing the quality of basic research . . . [are] fully adequate,” found that the research papers funded by 6.1 accounts “was deemed to be, in fact, basic – not applied - research in DOD,” and determined that coordination among DOD’s various basic research programs, as well as with other similar federal research programs was “fully adequate.”  The task force also stated that the efficiency of funding from initial appropriations to disbursement “is consistent with comparable activities.”

One finding was negative:

“The task force found an alarming level of bureaucratic business practices hindering the conduct of basic research. The challenge is that there are so many sources of bureaucratic burden: legislation; administration requirements imposed from outside DOD; requirements imposed from within DOD; requirements imposed by the Services; and requirements imposed by the basic research-performing organizations themselves, both intramural and extramural. The phrase used within the task force was ‘death of a thousand cuts.’

“Unnecessary and unproductive bureaucratic burden on basic researchers funded by DOD equates to reduction of the DOD basic research budget. Reducing that burden is perhaps the most important task to improve the current DOD basic research program. The task force recommends that the Director for Basic Research in ASD(R&E) serve as an ombudsman, seeking to document, eliminate, or waive such unproductive activities.”

The task force described “a long-term concern” about the globalization of science, recommending that DOD foster more “side-by-side with foreign researchers” cooperative agreements.  It also recommends a series of steps to ensure that adequate scientific human resources will be available in the future to support the basic research programs.  Finally, “the task force strongly urges the Department to proceed smartly with the development of a genuine technology strategy that could inform basic research priorities.”  This formulation of such a strategy is discussed at length in chapter 5 of the report.

The report provides a highly-readable review of the 6.1 programs, and includes examples of “broad and powerful game-changing applications” emanating from defense basic research.  Previous reports on defense S&T are summarized.  Of note, the Defense Department funds approximately 7 percent of federal basic research in the physical sciences.  The task force found that funding for defense science and technology programs “has been relatively flat over the past few years,” although the budget for basic research programs increased in FY 2011 (as it did for the current year – up 16.6 percent.)  The task force did not offer any funding target recommendation, in contrast to a report the Defense Science Board issued in 1998 recommending a total funding rate for the three defense science and technology programs.

There was very little discussion about funding for DOD’s basic research programs at a February 29 hearing of the Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities of the House Armed Services Committee.  Chaired by Rep. William Thornberry (R-TX), the two-hour hearing heard from senior officials of the Defense Department, Army, Navy, Air Force, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.  There was little or no disagreement between the members and the five witnesses. Rather, it afforded members an opportunity to ask about the role of science and technology in avoiding surprise, the high caliber of the current S&T workforce, STEM education and the future workforce, maintaining the strength of the defense S&T enterprise within an austere budget environment, and the replacement of aging laboratory infrastructure.  One issue predominated: cyber security and cyber warfare.  Members were very interested in what is being done to strengthen defensive and offensive U.S. capabilities.  Said Thornberry about domestic and foreign defense science and technology: “there is just so much moving so fast.  It is an enormous challenge.”      

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics