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

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Publication date: 
19 March 2012

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.”     

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