A hearing last month by the House Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee found consistent support and appreciation for defense science and technology programs on both sides of the aisle. As a subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, the hearing was called to review the FY 2012 budget request.
The hearing focused more on broad concepts, issues, and programs than it did on individual line items. Subcommittee chairman William Thornberry (R-TX) opened by declaring that most subcommittee members would agree that the future of the Defense Department, and indeed the nation’s security, were dependent on DOD’s defense science and technology programs. He cautioned that when budgets are tight, there is often the temptation to cut funding for these programs because their impacts are not always quickly apparent.
While Capitol Hill has become intensely partisan, this hearing, similar to other hearings on federal science programs, demonstrated bipartisan support for science and technology programs. Ranking Member Jim Langevin (D-RI) concurred with Thornberry’s opening remarks, and the approach that both of them and other members took in their questioning of the witnesses was similar. Langevin spoke of the importance of basic research in his opening comments, a point that was frequently made during this two-hour hearing by other members and the five witnesses. In his prepared remarks, Zachary Lemnios, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering explained:
“The Department’s basic research program paves the way for our technological future – the scientific discoveries it yields today provide the foundation for tomorrow’s capabilities. Given the increased global emphasis on research and development, the U.S. cannot assume an assured technological superiority on the battlefield: to do so it must remain on the scientific cutting edge. The President’s commitment to an appropriately funded basic research program is reflected in the Department’s FY 2012 budget request. This represents a $79M increase to $2.078B, or 2.2 percent real growth in basic research accounts compared to the FY 2011 President’s Budget Request.”
Among the examples he cited of basic research areas supported by the Defense Department that “represent future high potential/high opportunity” were engineered materials, quantum information and control, and nanotechnology.
As has been true at other hearings, the present and future STEM workforce was often mentioned as a critical concern. At one point, the witnesses, who represented the Department of Defense, Army, Navy, Air Force, and DARPA, were asked about the effect that aging defense laboratories have on the recruitment and retention of scientists. Lemnios and Rear Admiral Nevin Carr Jr, Chief of Naval Research, responded that it can be a real challenge to compete for highly skilled personnel with corporations that have more modern facilities.
Committee members were particularly interested in cyber-security programs. Several questions were also asked about how defense S&T programs interact with small and large businesses, and academic institutions. A theme running throughout the hearing was the importance of S&T programs in avoiding technological surprise. Thornberry and Lemnios discussed how research priorities are set, with the chairman expressing his appreciation for the very difficult challenges the department faces. Following a discussion of how research results are not guaranteed, Thornberry told Lemnios, “We want to encourage you to take some of those long bets.”