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JASON Report on “S&T for National Security” Raises Concerns

Richard M. Jones
Number 68 - June 25, 2010  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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"We begin by noting that a healthy DoD basic research program is essential. . . . However, despite the importance of DoD Basic Research, we believe that important aspects of the DoD basic research programs are ‘broken’ to an extent that neither throwing more money at these problems nor simple changes in procedures and definitions will fix them." So concludes a report issued through the JASON Program Office that was sponsored by the Director of Defense Research and Engineering.

The public release of this 60-page document, “S&T for National Security,” came as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Federation of American Scientists. After an initial partial denial that was then appealed the report was released last month by the Office of Secretary of Defense.

There is scant official information about the JASONs. In 2002, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) described the JASONs in a letter to the House Armed Services Committee as “a group of scientists that has advised the Department on scientific issues for many decades. JASON was founded in 1958. It consists of an evolving group of approximately fifty academic scientists who convene semiannually to study selected scientific issues for the military and other federal agencies. The important feature of JASON is that, even though it is funded by DARPA and other agencies, JASON acts independently of the Department of Defense and these agencies. This ensures that the advice that JASON gives is unbiased.” The JASON Program Office is located within the MITRE Corporation.

“This JASON study was chartered by DDR&E [Director, Defense Research and Engineering] to consider how basic research (BA1 or 6.1) should be structured within the DoD to best meet the challenges ahead” the report states. The report’s authors drew on discussions with DDR&E and other Defense Department personnel, previous reports, and “on our extensive experience as practitioners and managers in the progress and the forefronts of science and engineering research” and their knowledge of a variety of research organizations. The report briefly examines factors providing the context for defense basic research: changes in the geopolitical scene, national security mission, and the rate of technology advance; the globalization of technology, spread of commercial technology, and the changing technology talent pool. The following chapter discusses the rationale for defense basic research, which includes how some research fields are largely supported by DOD, the critical importance of practical engineering talent to the department’s missions, and the need for “basic researchers knowledgeable in DoD problems to scan and couple basic work to DoD applications.”

The report reviews changes in defense S&T funding, stating “the fractions devoted to applied and basic research have declined steadily. Both are currently at or near all-time lows, BA1 [basic research] is projected to increase during the next few years.” For FY 2005, Congress appropriated $1,513 million for basic research. The FY 2010 appropriation was $1,882 million, an increase of $369 million or 24.4 percent over six fiscal years. The Obama Administration requested $1,999 million for FY 2011. The report explains that most basic research funding is concentrated in the service branches, from which it flows primarily to universities. Industry receives a larger fraction of applied research and advanced technology development funding, which the report authors find “is an appropriate balance, in our view.” The amount of basic research funding going to universities has been “roughly constant” while that to DOD laboratories has declined. The report identifies two problems regarding 6.1 basic research funding: its relatively small scale within the DOD budget results in a lack of high-level visibility and management attention, and difficulties in coordination since it is largely executed by the service branches.

Chapter 5, Observations, highlights problems in the 6.1 basic research program. “Over the years we have seen significant change in focus from long-term basic research to short-term deliverable-based research” the report states. Additionally:

“DoD sometimes appears not to be adhering to its own definition of basic research in its use of 6.1 funds.”

“Basic research funding is not exploited to seed inventions and discoveries that can shape the future; investments tend to be technological expenditures at the margin.”

“The portfolio balance of DoD basic research is generally not critically reviewed by independent, technically knowledgeable individuals.”

“Common/uniform management and reporting of 6.1 with 6.2 and 6.3 funds is bad practice. It obscures the actual uses of 6.1 funds.”

The authors later observed that “people are the bedrock of a successful research effort, yet the present DoD research program is more about funding projects than supporting the best people.” The authors were troubled by DoD lab structure, finding that it “has atrophied, for the most part” because it is largely devoted to the project management of the actual research performed by universities, industry, and Federally Funded Research and Development Centers. New technologies are seen as “high-risk” and largely avoided, the report stating “this often cuts the flow of ideas and demotivates the S&T workforce.”

In addition:

“DoD does not generally focus 6.1 funding on research of the highest caliber carried out by individuals with the potential to provide new paradigms for science and technology. DoD is getting what it asks for in tightly managed and focused research programs, but is reducing the potential for true breakthroughs.”

“DoD is not adequately participating in the development and maintenance of the S&T educational pipeline.”

“DoD is not effective in coordinating and overseeing the basic research program and funding across the department.”

“The bureaucracy associated with DoD research has grown to consume ever more time and has diverted program managers into administrative formalities at the expense of scientific program oversight.”

“The DOE Labs have a higher profile in basic research. This is especially true for LLNL [Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory], LANL [Los Alamos National Laboratory], and SNL [Sandia National Laboratory], which are similar to the DoD labs in that they carry out basic research that leads to national security advances.”

The report concludes with a series of program, personnel, university, and organization recommendations. These include focusing funding on people rather than projects, using 6.1 basic research funding for truly basic research, and eliminating large fluctuations in 6.1 annual funding. Each service branch should establish a Research Corps, and the Defense Department should strengthen and expand undergraduate and graduate programs. The report also calls for strengthening basic research within DOD, suggesting the creation of an Undersecretary for Science and Technology. The full report can be read here.

In a memo accompanying the report, Alan Shaffer, Principal Deputy Director, Defense Research and Engineering, states:

“Looking more broadly, this JASON report, along with a previous report from the National Academy of Sciences and an upcoming study by the Defense Science Board, are being used by the Department to monitor and address any uncovered weaknesses in its basic research programs. A wide range of direct interactions with Universities and laboratories is also being undertaken.”

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics