New Report Assesses Defense Basic Research

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Publication date: 
20 January 2005

"No significant quantities of 6.1 funds (basic research) have been directed toward projects that are typical of research funded under categories 6.2 or 6.3." This statement will probably be the most discussed finding of a just-released study by the "Committee on Department of Defense Basic Research" of the National Research Council of the National Academies.

When Congress passed the FY 2004 National Defense Authorization Act it included report language mandating an NAS study "to assess the basic research portfolio of the [armed] services and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). This assessment should review the basic research portfolio in order to determine if the programs are consistent with the definitions of basic research in DoD regulation."

The 16-member NAS committee was chaired by Larry Welch, U.S. Air Force (retired), now with the Institute for Defense Analyses. Other committee members have backgrounds in academia, industry, and government. The study began in March 2004, and involved two meetings in which the committee heard from private and governmental experts. In addition, numerous visits or interviews were conducted at universities and site visits were made to defense facilities. The committee reported its findings in a 33-page document, with additional appendixes. It may be ordered or read on line at

The motivation for the congressional mandate was concern expressed by universities and defense laboratories over the last six years that the conduct of DOD basic research was changing. Specifically, there was concern that some 6.1 basic research money is being used to fund other research. In addition, DOD grant and contract reporting requirements are cumbersome and constraining. Finally, the services use basic research funds differently, making tracking and monitoring difficult.

The committee questioned the appropriateness of only a "small percentage" of work classified as 6.1 research, and that some of this uncertainty may revolve around the definition of basic research. "There is no evidence of significant misapplication of basic research funding," the committee stated. It urged that the definition of basic research be refined to include that it "has the potential for broad, rather than specific, application," and "may lead to: . . . the discovery of new knowledge that may later lead to more focused advances." Rejecting the traditional linear process view of 6.1, 6.2 and 6.3 research, the committee advised that "DOD should view basic research, applied research, and development as continuing activities occurring in parallel, with numerous supporting connections throughout the process."

While the committee may not have found 6.1 funding be used inappropriately, it did find reduced attention to basic research: "there has been a trend within DOD for reduced attention to unfettered exploration in its basic research program. Near-term DOD needs are producing significant pressure to focus basic research in support of those needs. DOD needs to realign the balance of its basic research effort more in favor of unfettered exploration."