Pentagon’s New Program for Innovation, in Context

FACT: According to an article in today’s Washington Post, the Pentagon has announced “the selection of six university professors who will form the first class of the National Security Science and Engineering Faculty Fellows Program. The professors will receive grants of up to $600,000 per year for up to five years to engage in basic research — essentially a bet by the Pentagon that they will make a discovery that proves vital to maintaining the superiority of the U.S. military.”

ANALYSIS: This new program is an innovation from DoD’s Director of Defense Research and Engineering (DDR&E), and since tomorrow I’ll be at Ft. McNair for a two-day conference sponsored by DDR&E on Strategic Communications, I’ll congratulate John Young and his staff for the good idea.

But the Post article falls short in two ways: one immediate (it leaves out key information about next year’s program and the upcoming deadline!) and one longer-term (it ignores the overall context of federal support for R&D).  I’ll fill in the blanks below.

I think the program is a really laudable one, with the stated goal “to provide faculty and staff scientists and engineers from U.S. accredited, degree-granting academic institutions with a career enhancing opportunity through their association with DoD while at the same time they are conducting unclassified basic research in critical areas of interest [and giving them the opportunity to] enhance their understanding of critical research needs and interact with DoD senior leaders. 

We do think great discoveries are likely.”  William S. Rees Jr., deputy undersecretary of defense for laboratories and basic sciences, quoted by the Washington Post in announcing the 2008 fellowship recipients. 

While listing the 2008 fellows (from Cal Tech, Johns Hopkins, UCLA, Northwestern, Boston University, and Penn State), the article failed to mention that there are fast approaching deadlines for the 2009 fellowship program.  For next year’s awards, due dates are June 25, 2008 for the required “Letter of Intent to Nominate” (from the faculty member’s university), and July 11, 2008 for the “White Paper with supporting documentation.”  If selected as a finalist, full proposals will be due on October 3 this fall, and awards announced next spring.  Full guidelines and background info, plus an FAQ, are available in the official DDR&E announcement here.

A couple of interesting notes about the announcement itself: It states that “DDR&E is especially interested in researchers who have not previously been involved in DoD programs” [my emphasis].  Also, while the announcement doesn’t explicitly encourage non-U.S. citizens to apply, they are eligible.  In fact, in its inaugural competition this year, there was a little-noticed change in the criteria, summed up in a quiet revision published to the original announcement for the 2008 program

Section III (Change):
The Fellowship competition is open to U.S. citizens whose earned Ph.D. was awarded with the past 25 years. Applicants must be faculty or staff at an accredited, degree-granting educational institution.
To: The Fellowship competition is open to distinguished faculty scientists and engineers whose earned Ph.D. or equivalent degree was awarded after 31 December 1982. Applicants must be faculty or staff at an accredited, degree-granting U.S. educational institution.”

So there was a switch from allowing only U.S. citizens, no matter whether their university was here or abroad, to now allowing U.S. or non-U.S. citizens employed by a U.S. educational institution.  I think that’s a very valuable step.

What topics are allowed?  I think the breadth is fascinating: one of the first year’s awards is for work in applied math and statistics, designed to incorporate social networks and other voluminous Internet data together with traditional scientific data for models in predictive analysis.  (Some details are in the Post article cited above, with awardee Carey Priebe of Johns Hopkins saying, “One of the big problems DoD has, as does the Washington Post, Google, and everyone else, is trying to understand all the stuff that is out there.”)

The guidelines make clear the fellowships are for basic research, or “farsighted high-payoff research that provides the basis for technological progress,” and the “areas of interest to DDR&E” come straight out of the 2007 Department of Defense Research & Engineering Strategic Plan.  Since DDR&E also oversees DARPA, and John Young acts as the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for all of DoD, you can imagine those interests are pretty broad – the guidelines list the following:

(1) astronomy, astrophysics and space sciences; (2) atmospheric sciences and meteorology; (3) aviation science, astronautics; (4) behavioral and social sciences, including psychology, training; (5) biological and medical sciences, including biochemistry and biotechnology; (6) chemistry (physical, organic, polymer)and chemical engineering; (7) communications and networks; (Eight) computer and information sciences; (9) earth sciences and oceanography; (10) materials-functional materials, including electronic and bio-inspired materials, textiles, adhesives, etc.; (11) materials-structural materials, metallurgy, ceramics, refractory materials; (12) mathematics; (13) mechanical, industrial, electrical, civil, and marine engineering; (14) physics, including acoustics, fluid mechanics, optics, spectroscopy, nuclear physics, etc.; (15) propulsion, engines, and fuels; (16) robotics, science of autonomy; and (17) weapons and military sciences, countermeasures, including counter-WMD and counter-directed weapons science.”

The context of the program in overall federal R&D spending is important to keep in mind: the amount is Federal Trends in R&D Investments 1976-2009a pittance overall (up to $30 million total over five years for all the fellowships), and comes at a time when federal R&D funding has been flat for several years (in constant dollars) or even declining (in percentage of GDP).  The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) recently released their analysis of R&D in the FY 2009 federal budget, including this chart (left).

According to the AAAS, in 2009 “Defense R&D would continue to increase, and next year defense basic research in the physical sciences would share in the gains. Despite tough budget conditions, the overall federal investment in R&D would increase $4.9 billion or 3.5 percent to $147.4 billion, driven primarily by increases in development funding. The federal investment in basic and applied research would fall 0.3 percent to $57.3 billion in 2009.”

One last contextual note from the AAAS analysis: “U.S. government research investment has so far failed to match the new realities … and has also failed to match the competition. Asian nations are dramatically increasing their government research investments: both China and South Korea, for example, are boosting government research by 10 percent or more annually.”

Now, overall R&D spending in the U.S., meaning government and private-sector investments combined, is up again this year, and I don’t want to underestimate the efficiency and energy demonstrated by private-sector research and development in driving technology forward.  That’s the premise behind my current work at Microsoft, after all – to make more of the company’s $8 billion investment in R&D relevant for government early adopters.  Not everything has to be on the taxpayer’s dime🙂

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  2. […] been a hobbyhorse topic of mine; see previous pieces even from way back in 2007-08 like “Pentagon’s New Program for Innovation in Context,” or “A Roadmap for Innovation – From the Center or the Edge?” or […]

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