Defense Research Enterprise Assessment Urges Deeper Integration, Greater Managerial Autonomy

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Publication date: 
14 February 2017

The Defense Science Board has released its Defense Research Enterprise Assessment, presenting conclusions of a year-long task force study of Defense Department laboratories and technology centers. The assessment recommends the labs be granted greater managerial independence and a stronger role in acquisitions and the formulation of technology requirements.


Defense Research Enterprise Assessment cover

Defense Research Enterprise Assessment cover

(Image credit – Defense Science Board)

U.S. government document, public domain

On Jan. 25, the Defense Science Board released its Defense Research Enterprise Assessment, the end product of a year-long task force study of Department of Defense laboratories and technology centers. The assessment concentrates primarily on the governance of these institutions and on their place within DOD as a whole. It attempts no evaluation of the scale of the enterprise or of the quality or quantity of its science and technology outputs. The task force’s chairperson was Victoria Coleman, formerly the chief technology officer of the Connective Home Division of Technicolor SA, and, as of November, CTO of the Wikimedia Foundation.

Assessment urges integration of labs with planning activities

One of the assessment’s main recommendations is that defense labs should be more thoroughly integrated with DOD planning activities. It argues that the labs can help lead the department through technological change by helping it “anticipate and canvass emerging and future requirements and evolving missions,” and by playing a greater role in the acquisition process.

However, the assessment also finds that the labs’ own work can be “out of synch” with DOD requirements, with some lab-developed technological advances arriving “too early” to be of use, while others arrive “too late” because industry has already met department needs. To guide the labs’ work more effectively, the assessment recommends that DOD formulate an overarching “science and technology plan.” Currently, each armed service formulates its own such plan.

Beyond better integration with top-level planning, the assessment also urges better integration with the work of peer organizations. It observes that many major industrial companies have established outposts in Silicon Valley and similar centers of innovation where “Open Innovation Centers” permit a freer exchange of technology, talent, and ideas. The assessment notes,

While efforts, like the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, are building links with non-traditional defense vendors, the absence of the Labs from these innovation hotspots means they are not able to act as the eyes and ears of the DoD when it comes to technologies and talent in these areas.

The assessment lauds the Open Campus business model that the Army Research Laboratory has already implemented at several of its facilities. However, the assessment also acknowledges the difficulty in expanding on the model since it “runs counter to the established notions of building a wall between the DoD scientific community and their peers on the outside.”

Greater bureaucratic independence recommended

While the assessment recommends greater strategic integration within and beyond DOD, it also recommends greater managerial independence. It reports,

We consistently found that the Labs operate under significantly more restrictive environments than their peer labs in the Department of Energy, overseas and private industry, including the ability to plan their portfolio, manage to their budget, hire, and compensate their people and maintain and renew their infrastructure. While the contrast is perhaps starker in the case of private labs, it is noteworthy that overseas peer labs have significantly more control over their local affairs and operate with levels of autonomy quite rare in the case of the DoD Labs.

The assessment notes that labs’ managerial cultures are varied, spanning from “labs that refused to take no for an answer” to “labs that have surrendered to the bureaucracy.” Lab culture, it suggests, is closely tied to the leadership style of its director as well as the demands its branch of the services imposes on it. The assessment singles out the Navy as placing “particularly onerous restrictions” on lab operations, requiring, for instance, the Secretary of the Navy to personally sign off on conference travel.

The assessment regards managerial independence as an important means of addressing persistent problems such as recruiting personnel at all levels and addressing severe maintenance and recapitalization needs. Lab directors have also identified these issues as problems, such as at a congressional hearing this past September, but the assessment is more pointed in its criticism. For instance, on maintenance issues, it observes,

Perhaps the most disturbing case of facilities issues the Task Force became aware of was at Eglin [Air Force Base], where 15 researchers working on the C86 laser had no potable water for eight months between November 2015 and June 2016. While Google style cafeterias are an extravagance no one in the Labs would expect, Lab researchers are certainly entitled to drinking water at their place of work.

A key problem the assessment identifies is that DOD labs often do not make use of the various authorities already granted to them. It notes, for example, that the department has not made strong use of the Defense Laboratory Modernization Pilot Program provided for in the fiscal year 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). It explains that no funds were appropriated to the program and the services have been wary of “the long-term impacts of decrementing or diverting their scarce S&T funding for other purposes such as infrastructure maintenance and repairs.” The assessment also notes that some labs do not spend the allowed amounts of their “section 219” authority, which gives them discretion to allocate a small percentage of their funds to special projects, including maintenance.

Even still, the assessment recommends expanding existing authorities. For instance, it supports a suggestion that DOD allow labs to “bank” funds allocated to section 219 projects from year to year so that larger projects can be funded. It “strongly supports” the “Management Demo” pilot program included as section 948 in an early version of the fiscal year 2017 NDAA, but not in the version ultimately enacted.

Assessment says labs need champions within DOD

Near its conclusion, the assessment takes stock of some of the barriers to implementing changes in policy. It notes, for instance, that while it recommends improvements in the criteria used to evaluate lab performance, effective metrics cannot replace organizational champions. It reports, “A perception exists that Congress cares more about the Labs than the [Office of the Secretary of Defense] does. There is also a sense the Labs are perceived as being behind the curve and are not valued as the assets they are.”

The assessment suggests, in particular, that the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering advocate “on behalf of the Labs by creating and sharing a narrative explaining the work and the impact of the labs in plain language on a regular cadence.”

The assessment looks to the Laboratory Quality Enhancement Program, mandated in the fiscal year 2017 NDAA, as a promising new vehicle for change. It suggests the program will bring laboratory directors together “to address big agenda items for the department,” and to develop a DOD enterprise-wide view. It also expects recommendations to be made through it to “carry significant weight.”

In appendix D, the assessment notes that it is the latest in over 200 studies, assessments, and reviews of DOD’s laboratory system dating back to World War II. While major changes have been implemented over the years, it acknowledges that many issues and recommendations go perennially unresolved. It also notes that DOD lacks a sophisticated capacity to monitor and evaluate the positive and negative effects of instituted changes, increasing the difficulty of policymaking in the department.


A timeline of selected reports on DOD labs dating back to World War II

A timeline of selected reports on DOD labs dating back to World War II

(Image credit – Defense Science Board)

public domain

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