DoD seeks more collaborative S&T research

By Jared Serbu
Federal News Radio

The Defense Department plans to focus its science and technology research dollars in seven specific areas in the next several years, and wants to get industry, academia and government all on the same page as it pursues work in those fields.

Zachary Lemnios, DoD’s assistant secretary for research and engineering told a Congressional subcommittee last week that he has spent his time since being appointed in the summer of 2009 trying to shape the Pentagon’s research activities into an integrated enterprise-one that has clear objectives that are clear to both the Defense industrial base and to academia.

DoD’s research programs aim to meet three challenges, he said. They include preparing for future technological threats, staying in front of technical advances that give the entire world access to first-rate technology, and meeting those objectives in a world in which other countries’ students are outperforming Americans in the “STEM” areas: science, technology, engineering and math.

“We realize that our technical goals are only achievable with exceptional research and engineering talent,” Lemnios said at a hearing of the House subcommittee on emerging threats and capabilities.

Lemnios talked separately with investors and vendors-something he said he has been doing a lot of–at last week’s McAleese-Credit Suisse conference in Crystal City, Va. He told attendees that he wanted their help in building bridges with academia and industry as DoD attempts to align outside research activities with its own in seven priority areas it identified in a two-year review of its science and technology programs.

The seven areas are:

  • Cyber science and technology
  • Electronic warfare
  • Data-to-Decisions
  • Engineered resilient systems
  • Countering weapons of mass destruction
  • Autonomous systems
  • Enhancing the interfaces between people and machines

Lemnios said his office has also been trying to zero-in on areas in which industry has been investing its own independent research dollars. In many cases, that research is reimbursed by DoD if it can be linked to a contract, even indirectly. Reimbursements under the Industry Independent Research and Development (IR&D) program amount to $4 billion per year, he said, but DoD has not scrupulously tracked those investments since the early 1990’s, when the system of government monitoring and scoring for IR&D projects devolved into what he said was now a largely pro-forma exercise.

Lemnios said the old system was very effective in terms of tracking private-sector research priorities, but that the tradeoff was enormous overhead costs to DoD.

“I’m not at all comfortable with going back and grading, I don’t think that’s at all scalable,” he said. “But I do think we should be able to put levers into the system to motivate industry to make investments in areas where we want to move forward, and in fact that’s the approach we’ve taken. Be clear about where we think the next acquisition programs are, where we think the long-range investments should be based on how we see our needs moving over time. That should be reflected in our contract research and development strategies, and it should be mirrored in industry’s investment in those areas.”

Lemnios said DoD is doing its best to make its priorities clear. At the investors’ conference, he said the data-to-decisions objective ranked among the highest, given the ever-growing number of terabytes of raw data flowing through DoD’s systems and awaiting analysis.

An example of the challenge, he said, was the vast amount of information generated by intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems such as unmanned aerial vehicles.

“It’s about managing very large data sets in time-critical environments,” he said. “It’s about integrating disparate sensors-sensors that were never designed to interoperate-that aren’t structured with a common data environment. This is a challenge for the research community, it’s a challenge for our operational community as we field more ISR sensors.”

Another key area, he said, would be building what in DoD parlance are known as engineered resilient systems: The ability to build reliable weapons systems out of components made in and procured from a globalized and sometimes untrusted marketplace.

“I can buy a component from a chip supplier, and in many cases I have no idea where that was fabricated,” he said. “I have no idea if that part has only the information that I’ve asked for and not some special sauce. Our Defense industrial base needs those tools to architect systems that are correct by design, to include a vulnerability assessment of how that system would be exploited or defeated. It’s about building trusted systems from parts that I can’t actually validate.”

In the 2012 budget, cybersecurity was another major winner on DoD’s science and technology list. The administration has asked for a doubling of cyber research funding for the coming fiscal year, and $500 million in new cyber research spending at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), said Dr. Regina Dugan, DARPA’s director.

“We’ve already recruited an expert team,” she said at last week’s House hearing. “They come from the white-hat hacker community, they come from industry, they come from a variety of sources.”

For those priorities and the other four on DoD’s list, communicating with higher education institutions and industry isn’t just important in terms of conducting the actual research, Lemnios said, but for ensuring that colleges and universities are growing up the talent that the Pentagon and its $26 billion research budget will need in the coming years.

He said he spends a lot of time talking with university presidents about the seven focus areas.

“Those should be the formation of new departments in universities and academic environments,” he said. “If we really need work in quantum computing five or ten years from now, we’d better have those students being trained now in order to have those employees as they graduate. It’s critically important that we not only identify the S&T priorities, but really have the foundational elements within our academic environment to produce those students.”

To do that, Lemnios said the Pentagon is reaching out to current students to hammer home the importance of the STEM areas and how they can lead to careers in DoD. He said the department is also piloting a new effort with more than a dozen colleges and universities to provide a capstone course in systems engineering, a field he said the department felt would be increasingly important but that few higher learning institutions teach as a discipline.

(Copyright 2011 by All Rights Reserved.)


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