Last month senior Pentagon officials overseeing defense science and technology programs appeared before House and Senate authorizers to discuss the FY 2014 request and related topics. A major concern was the impact of mandatory budget reductions on S&T programs due to sequestration. Also of note was the view of several witnesses that allocations for the three programs needed to be rebalanced in a manner that would shift funding away from 6.1 basic research.
The hearings were held two days apart and featured five witnesses, four of which were the same at both hearings. The April 16 hearing before the Subcommittee on Intelligence, Emerging Threats and Capabilities of the House Armed Services Committee demonstrated continued strong support for defense science and technology programs, with subcommittee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX) declaring “the money we spend on science and technology is the basis for our country’s future security.” Thornberry was pleased with the Obama Administration’s request for the Pentagon’s science and technology portfolio that would maintain approximately level funding. Subcommittee Ranking Member Jim Langevin (D-RI) voiced similar sentiments, while expressing concerns about the effects of sequestration on the nation’s defense base and its workforce.
“We are heading into uncertainty” said Alan Shaffer, Principal Deputy, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. Sequestration requires a mandatory 9 percent reduction in each of the Pentagon’s S&T program lines in 2013, he explained, resulting in a $200 million reduction in university research grants, reducing (perhaps to zero) SMART scholarships, and limiting hiring of new scientists. Pentagon leaders are, Shaffer said, trying to protect S&T programs. His remarks were echoed by other witnesses. The impact of sequestration on the Navy has been “dramatic” necessitating the termination of 300 small university grants, and is having a “corrosive” effect on DARPA’s operations by delaying or cancelling contracts. Shaffer offered reassurances that while DoD reprogramming might apply some pressure to S&T funding there would be no rush to shift money. Pentagon leaders, he said, understand that these programs “need a long-term stable base.”
The recent successful test of the Laser Weapon System on a Navy ship that can disable a threat at the cost of one dollar a shot was much discussed as an example of the value of defense S&T programs. Army research is underway on using a solid state laser to shoot down mortars and missiles. Also discussed was the Administration’s proposed consolidation of federal STEM education programs, with Shaffer characterizing STEM education as “incredibly important” and one of the S&T program’s highest priorities. Other topics raised by committee members included cyber security, nanotechnology, reducing the weight of warfighter equipment, new navigation technologies, and tank armor.
The hearing two days later by the Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities of the Senate Armed Services Committee focused on similar topics. Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC) opened the hearing by giving credit to the Defense Department “for trying to preserve, as much as possible, the investments in science and technology,” while adding that budgetary pressures and other factors “are all forcing the science and technology community to reevaluate all priorities.” She expressed concern that sequestration will make it even more difficult to recruit and retain “the best and the brightest” for the defense S&T workforce. Subcommittee Ranking Member Deb Fischer (R-NE) said it is “critical that we continue to invest in advanced research and potentially game-changing technologies.” Fischer also called for DoD to shed non-warfighting research that has only marginal benefit to its core mission.
There was considerable discussion about the impacts of sequestration, with Shaffer responding to a question as follows:
“The place that it will hurt, I think, the worst is the reduction in the number of grants and new awards. We heard Ms. [Mary] Lacey [Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for RDT&E] say that the future naval capability new starts are cut in half. I will start no new technology demos for fiscal year 2013. We will reduce our overall number of grants going out to universities by somewhere between 500 and 1,000. That does not sound like much, but when we in the United States are struggling to have enough scientists and engineers to work on national security problems, I do not know which of those 500 or 1,000 grants might give me a very good scientist or engineer to come work in my laboratory. But if we reduce the pool, we reduce the future.”
In addition to sequestration, the senators were interested in efforts by DOD to reduce the time and expense to move the results of basic research into the field. The witnesses described more developmental prototyping in the 6.3 program, innovative business models, and improvements to acquisition systems as solutions.
Of interest was the following exchange between subcommittee chairwomen Hagan and several witnesses about funding allocations for the 6.1 basic research, 6.2 applied research, and 6.3 advanced technology programs.
“in the fiscal year 2014 budget request, the DOD has more or less preserved its top line funding for S&T. In part, this is due to increases in basic and applied research at the expense of advanced technology development. While increased basic research is important, there are concerns over decreases in more applied research funding and for activities that can help transition technologies across what has classically been labeled ‘the valley of death,’ the gap between the labs and then the military users.
“Do you feel the balance between basic research, applied research, and advanced technology development is right, and what is your assessment of our funding for technology development across ‘the valley of death’?”
Mary Miller, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Research and Technology:
“I think that the balance needs to be looked at. I think that we have done a good job in pushing resources down into basic research and now applied research, but it has caused an even earlier valley of death.”
“If you have got any examples . . . .”
“Well, I would tell you in this budget development, we ended up decreasing our budget activity 3, advanced tech development resources, on the order of $140 million pushed into other 6.2 areas, and we took our tech maturity -- so I should start with the Army established a 6.4 line for their S&T activities to help do prototyping and to cross the valley of death. And those resources have also been reprogrammed into the 6.1 and 6.2 at this time to make sure that we could meet compliance and have those next generation capabilities. But at this point, we need to start being cognizant of the ability to take those good ideas that are developed in earlier research veins and be able to transition them through. So we will be looking to try to get a better balance from here on out.”
Mary Lacey, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for RDT&E:
“I too agree that the balance needs to be relooked. We have seen that valley of death or the interpretation of it being a valley of death widen over the years. In reality, what we have done is we have moved things that historically had been in procurement accounts back into the R&D accounts. And so we have a lot of pressure on our 6.4 accounts that we currently have today, which is the traditional transition zone, and 94 percent of our money in what is BA-4 through BA-7 in the Navy is tied to program of record. So we have very little that is focused on that transition area, and that is something we need to look at very, very carefully DOD-wide. By preserving the 6.1 and 6.2, a very noble thing to do, at the expense of the 6.3 and 6.4, we are actually widening that valley.”
David Walker, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Science, Technology and Engineering:
“In the 2014 budget submission, we were actually able to increase our 6.3 at a greater rate than our 6.1 and 6.2 trying to reverse a trend that we have had over the last few years. 6.1 and 6.2 tended to dominate the S&T budget. But we have the same problem as the Navy. Our 6.4 program, our BA-4 is primarily tied to programs of record, and we miss that opportunity to move beyond the laboratory and into a demonstration and development program getting ready prior to a program of record being in place. That is an area that we think we need to improve as well.”
The dialogue then turned to other topics, including coming furloughs for civilian personnel. Shaffer commented:
“The reason that this step is being taken is because of the inability to move money between accounts from one to the other. And we, the Department, are in what I consider to be a very terrible place.
“We either fund the ongoing war efforts for our deployed forces or we furlough. So there are other ways at the margin to get there, but at the end of the day, we are so underfunded in our operations and maintenance accounts right now in the Department that we have to take the drastic steps. None of us particularly like furloughs. . . . So this is a very serious step. None of us like it. We understand why the Department is taking it. It is kind of where we are. . . .”