Senate Proposes Restructured Defense R&D Leadership, Expresses Interest in Lab Governance Reform

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Publication date: 
13 July 2016

Among its most significant science-related provisions, the National Defense Authorization Act passed by the Senate would assign management of Department of Defense R&D to a reconstituted Under Secretary of Defense for Research & Engineering. The bill also contains multiple measures to improve DOD’s ability to hire top technical talent, and the authoring committee expresses interest in “comprehensive defense lab governance reform.”

By a vote of 85 to 13 last month, the Senate passed its version of the fiscal year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)—the annual defense policy bill considered to be one of the few “must pass” pieces of legislation. The House approved its take on the bill in May (see FYI #66 for a summary). The two chambers are now gearing up for a conference to reconcile the significant differences between the bills. The first formal meeting of the House and Senate conferees is occurring today.

Although a NDAA has been signed into law annually for 54 consecutive years, there is some concern that the streak may end this year. The House and Senate bills differ from each other on numerous substantive policy issues, and the administration has issued lengthy statements (here and here, respectively) detailing grievances with both.

Most of the points of contention are unrelated to science, pertaining to subjects such as war funding levels and limitations on the size of the National Security Council staff. However, the Senate bill would overhaul management of DOD’s R&D enterprise, an action that the House bill does not take and that the administration opposes.

Many of the provisions relevant to science are in the sections on Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation (Title II) and the National Nuclear Security Administration (Title XXXI). The bill also contains multiple lab personnel and management reforms intended to help DOD hire top scientists and engineers and increase the effectiveness of the DOD lab system. Notably, the accompanying committee report authored by the Senate Armed Services Committee describes the rationale for these reforms at length and also expresses the committee’s interest in eventually conducting “comprehensive defense lab governance reform.”

Senate seeks to resurrect Cold War-era R&D leadership position

The Senate bill would eliminate the position of Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics (AT&L), which has broad purview over R&D as well as more routine acquisition and logistics activities. In its place, the bill reestablishes and updates the position of Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (USD(R&E)) alongside an Under Secretary of Management and Support. The committee describes its rationale as follows:

 The committee believes that establishing the position of the USD(R&E) is particularly important in a time when U.S. technological dominance is eroding and innovation is increasingly being driven by commercial and global companies that are not a part of the traditional U.S. defense industrial base.

The committee expects that just as previous USD(R&E) incumbents led the ‘Second Offset’ strategy, which successfully enabled the United States to leap ahead of the Soviet Union in terms of military technology, the new USD(R&E) would be tasked with driving the key technologies that must encompass what defense leaders are now calling a ‘Third Offset’ strategy: cyber and space capabilities, unmanned systems, directed energy, undersea warfare, hypersonics, and robotics, among others.

The USD(R&E) role previously existed from 1977 until 1986, when Congress replaced it with a position one level down in the department hierarchy, now called the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. The administration has not welcomed the Senate bill’s restructuring, including it in its list of concerns with the bill:

[The Senate NDAA] would restructure key parts of DOD in ways that have not been thoroughly reviewed by experts, either within or outside the Department, and that are likely to make the Department less efficient and agile. For example, it would dissolve the Office of the Under Secretary for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics (USD/AT&L) and replace it with failed models of the past.

The House Armed Services Committee held a hearing last week to receive more input on this and other organizational changes proposed by the Senate bill. Former Deputy Secretary of Defense John Harme testified in favor of the change, arguing that DOD’s AT&L apparatus has become a “giant compliance organization” incapable of fostering innovation. “I strongly encourage the committee to positively consider the Senate provision (Section 901),” he concluded, adding, “I have no doubt that the provision can be improved through give and take between the two committees in conference, but I hope the committee embraces the need to make structural changes to restore a focus for innovation in the Department.”

Personnel provisions aim to strengthen defense R&D workforce

The Senate bill has a number of provisions designed to improve DOD’s ability to attract and retain top technical talent. Three particularly notable ones are the following:

  • Sec. 1121 makes permanent a special authority used by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and DOD labs to hire scientists and engineers for term appointments with higher salaries than would otherwise be allowed;
  • Sec. 1122 makes permanent a special authority used by DOD labs to hire students enrolled in science or engineering programs and raises the cap on such hires from 3 percent to 10 percent of the annual number of hires; and
  • Sec. 1125 establishes a pilot program through which the DOD labs could significantly increase salaries for a small number of positions deemed especially critical.

In support of Sec. 1121, the committee cites testimony by DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar at an April hearing this year. “The [special hiring authority] experiment has now been running since 1999 and has clearly proven its benefits to DARPA and the nation. After 16 years of annual uncertainty about its ongoing availability, we would appreciate your support to make this authority permanent,” she said. The House bill would also make this authority permanent.

As for the nuclear weapons workforce, the committee recommends a $5 million increase for the Stockpile Responsiveness Program. Although far smaller than the $93 million increase recommended by the House bill, the committee makes clear that it believes the program is an important means of maintaining a skilled weapons design workforce. The committee also directs NNSA to consider conducting a design competition for the first of three new interoperable warheads called for by the current nuclear weapons modernization plan. The committee cites a 2015 National Academies report on design competitions as reason for NNSA to consider this action as a means of maintaining weapons workforce readiness. (A hearing on this report is summarized in FYI #8.)

Senate committee interested in DOD lab governance reform

In light of increasing demands on the DOD labs alongside a lack of understanding of best practices for lab governance, the committee directs the Government Accountability Office to conduct a one year study of governance models employed by both defense and non-defense federal labs. The committee describes the study rationale and tasking as follows:

 … [the committee] recognizes that with the launch of the Department of Defense’s Third Offset initiative, greater pressure is being placed on the defense laboratories, indeed the entire defense research enterprise, to be more innovative and quicker in bringing new technologies to production and deployment. The committee is struck that it seems unreasonable to expect such increased output and efficiency from the laboratories without a commensurate overhaul of management and governance structures.

At the same time, the committee has yet to see a comprehensive accounting of best practices for government laboratory governance. … As much as the committee would like to undertake comprehensive defense lab governance reform, it remains wary of doing more harm than good.

To remedy this gap in the committee’s knowledge and expertise, the committee directs the Comptroller General of the United States to complete a study of the various laboratory governance models employed at federal government laboratories, both defense and non-defense. This study should identify all different governance models used across the government, the benefits and drawbacks of each model, and how successful each governance model has been at fostering efficiency and innovation. The study should also compare the relative autonomy given to each of the different lab directors, and conclude with recommendations on best governance practices.

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