This year's jump in military R&D funding could halt the downward spiral of the past decade—and give the nation's research universities a major boost.
By Bruce Auster
In the early 1940s, the Defense Department needed a mechanical calculator, a new kind of machine to help with the mundane—like calculating firing tables—as well as with the
revolutionary, like creating the atomic bomb. So the Department invested in science and technology. A team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, with funding from the military, created ENIAC, the world's first
computer. The big payoff, in the form of the digital economy, came much later. For decades, the nation's military and its universities have collaborated to conceive and develop cutting-edge technologies, from the first
computer to the modern stealth fighter. Quite often, the Department was willing to risk its money, investing in obscure fields where there
might be no obvious benefit. The tight budgets of the mid-1990s ended those days. Money was short, delaying or perhaps even squelching potentially productive areas of elementary research.
In the decade since the Cold War ended, the American defense establishment has been transformed: spending on the military has declined, troops have adapted to new missions, and industry giants have
been swallowed up in huge merger deals. But there was another, less obvious development. These years of cuts in federal defense spending hit hard at the nation's universities, particularly those that
specialize in engineering research, as money for exploratory research was especially hard to come by. This squeeze had a dire effect on universities. "Government money, especially defense money, tended
to be the main oxygen source for engineering," says John Hamre, who is now president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank. "If you've got a school
that's been on the cutting edge of engineering R&D, you feel it dramatically when it doesn't grow." Recent trends, however, suggest the dark days for R&D funded by the Defense Department might be
receding. Overall defense R&D spending reversed its decline in 1995 and has been gathering upward momentum ever since. 2001 will see a healthy 6.6 percent increase over 2000 to nearly $42 billion.
More tellingly for universities, the tide for basic research turned in 1998, with funding in this area bottoming out at $1.04 billion. The 2001 budget offers $1.33 billion for basic research, just 10 percent
below the post-Cold War peak of $1.47 billion reached in 1993. Clinton's Choices
In the decade since the Cold War ended, the American defense establishment has been transformed: spending on the military has declined, troops have adapted to new missions, and industry giants have been swallowed up in huge merger deals. But there was another, less obvious development. These years of cuts in federal defense spending hit hard at the nation's universities, particularly those that specialize in engineering research, as money for exploratory research was especially hard to come by. This squeeze had a dire effect on universities. "Government money, especially defense money, tended to be the main oxygen source for engineering," says John Hamre, who is now president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank. "If you've got a school that's been on the cutting edge of engineering R&D, you feel it dramatically when it doesn't grow."
Recent trends, however, suggest the dark days for R&D funded by the Defense Department might be receding. Overall defense R&D spending reversed its decline in 1995 and has been gathering upward momentum ever since. 2001 will see a healthy 6.6 percent increase over 2000 to nearly $42 billion. More tellingly for universities, the tide for basic research turned in 1998, with funding in this area bottoming out at $1.04 billion. The 2001 budget offers $1.33 billion for basic research, just 10 percent below the post-Cold War peak of $1.47 billion reached in 1993.
The imperatives of fiscal discipline forced some hard choices on the Clinton administration in the mid-1990s. In short, the Pentagon had to choose between its present and its future. Many far-sighted defense analysts, including retired Adm. William Owens, who served as Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Andrew Krepenevich of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, argue that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the preeminence of American military power offered a rare chance: These proponents of a revolution in military affairs urged the Pentagon to set aside "evolutionary" new purchases of ships and aircraft. Instead, they wanted the military to invest in a future some 25 years over the horizon, in which ships and planes would be unmanned and high-tech battlefield gear would be issued to every soldier as readily as a canteen.
Things did not turn out as the revolutionaries hoped. Conflicts in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq have kept American forces occupied around the world and around the clock. Those actions cost billions that might have been invested in research and development. But American intervention overseas had another, less obvious side effect: Long deployments and a booming economy back home made the military, just a few years after Desert Storm, seem a less than attractive place to start a career. With enlistments down, the military had to act to keep its best soldiers, sailors, and aviators in uniform. So it spent billions more on improving living quarters and boosting pay.
Where did the money for all that spending come from? The dollars came from the Pentagon's accounts for weapons procurement and for research and development, the very areas that might have been expected to see greater investment during this period without major conflict. As budget pressures have waned in recent years, though, a combination of factors has changed the outlook for defense R&D. Supported by a growing advocacy effort on the part of universities, scientific and engineering societies, and industry, leaders from both sides of the aisle in Congress have consistently boosted defense R&D spending above White House requests for the last three years. Both candidates for president have expressed strong commitments to defense R&D, and the Defense Science Board has weighed in with a series of influential reports recommending greater university and private-sector participation in defense research projects and a more flexible approach to acquiring and developing promising new technologies.
Skipping the Basics
While recent times have favored defense R&D, in real dollars current funding levels lag behind the levels reached in the early 1990s. The areas of most concern to higher education researchers reside within one sector of the broad defense R&D portfolio known as the "S&T programs." Grouped under three budgets—labeled 6.1 ("basic research"), 6.2 ("applied research"), and 6.3 ("advanced technology development")—the S&T programs cleared $9 billion in the 2001 budget for the first time since 1994. At their Cold War peak, they ran to $11.9 billion. Even with the 6.1, or basic research, budget increasing by 14 percent for 2001, the 1994 mark still lies $133 million higher.
As overall research and development funding has declined, the military services have had to choose where to spend scarce R&D dollars. Not surprisingly, they chose to put more money into advanced developmental programs, like new tactical fighters. The approach has its critics. "This philosophy may weed out promising technologies not directly coupled with existing or emerging systems," concludes a report this year by the Air Force Association. Case in point: The Air Force cut research on hypersonics after the National Aerospace Plane program was canceled, according to AFA. Still, it is no mystery why advanced development gets more money: the payoff is much clearer. "You produce a defined product out the back end," explains Hamre, who was Deputy Secretary of Defense before joining CSIS this year. Basic research, he adds, merely "funds a concept."
As a result, backers of basic and applied research have a hard time competing politically. Hamre recalls that during his tenure as the Department's second-ranking official, no one from the university community except Charles Vest, the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, ever lobbied him personally on behalf of basic research. Consequently, the Department funded science and technology almost grudgingly. "We don't have good ways to manage investment in R&D," says Hamre. "It tends to be incremental, this year versus last year. It's hard to measure the value of input at 6.1 to 6.3." In fact, most years the Army, Navy, and Air Force look to shave their budgets by cutting research. The secretary of defense must then insist that they put the money back in.
Now, however, Vest has much more company. The leadership of ASEE, including more than one hundred engineering deans, as well as ASEE volunteers periodically fan out across Capitol Hill to educate members and their staffs about the critical importance of academic engineering research to the defense establishment and the nation's economy. This effort has helped Congress understand the importance of the 6.1-6.3 budgets, as well as to promote exchanges among defense S&T program officials, industry, higher education, and Capitol Hill.
The record shows, in fact, that investment in science and technology has produced measurable results. Defense Department investments in information technology did not end with the first computer, for instance. The military requirement that messages be delivered on the battlefield led to investments in packet-switching technology. The result, the ARPAnet, was a precursor to the World Wide Web. The Department's investment in advanced materials research—in areas such as metallurgy, composites, ceramics, and coatings—produced a host of military applications. The F-117A stealth fighter, which experienced vibration troubles, overcame them thanks to thermoplastic composites. Top-of-the-line Army helicopters, the Apache and the Comanche, are stronger and lighter thanks to DOD's Advanced Composite Airframe Program.
Even the now widely used Global Positioning System (GPS) got its start because the Pentagon spent the research money necessary to launch it. Back in the 1950s, the Air Force and the Navy needed a way to track satellites. The early programs led to a scheme to use satellites for navigation, which evolved into the modern GPS program. The list goes on; night-vision systems, lasers and optics, and phased-array radars, among other programs, got their start thanks to DOD investments in basic and applied research.
Despite the successes, the military services do not get excited about spending money on concepts—like ceramics or optics—until they can name the weapon system that will emerge from the procurement pipeline. This is not good news for colleges and universities. When the Pentagon spends money on the advanced stages of the development of a new aircraft, say the new F-22 stealth fighter, the money generally goes to the industry contractor developing the plane, which in this case would be Lockheed Martin. Colleges and universities depend, instead, on a pot of money for basic and applied research that is always under threat of being raided. In fact, colleges and universities will get more than half of the $1.3 billion the Pentagon will spend on basic research in 2001 and about 20 percent of the $3.7 billion it will spend next year on applied research.
Within the academic community, certain disciplines are hardest hit by cuts. During the Clinton administration, federal spending on research at universities has remained fairly strong, chiefly because the vast majority of total spending comes from the National Institutes of Health. (In fact, in 1999, federal R&D spending at colleges and universities topped $15 billion. Of that, just $1.3 billion came from the Pentagon. Most, more than $9 billion, came from NIH.)
Defense cuts, therefore, hit certain university departments hardest. The Defense Department's share of all federal funding for engineering is enormous: while DOD contributes just 10 percent of federal monies for all academic disciplines, it contributes more than 70 percent of all federal funding for electrical engineering and more than 60 percent for mechanical engineering. "It's clear that in certain areas, we're a key driver of research," says Dr. Delores Etter, the deputy undersecretary of defense for science and technology.
The consequences for the armed forces are significant. "Over the next couple of decades," Michael Vickers of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments told a symposium on American Power last year, "air warfare will likely be transformed from a regime dominated by manned, theater-range, air superiority aircraft to one dominated by extended-range, unmanned, stealth platforms." Similar transformations are predicted for warfare on land and at sea.
Down the Line
But for the armed services to make real what the grand thinkers predict, the Pentagon will have to research computer viruses, electromagnetic pulse weapons, and robotics. Some outside experts are skeptical the Pentagon is spending enough on the future. A report earlier this year by the Air Force Association concluded that promising technologies, including miniaturized munitions and improved materials for space, may not be ready for Air Force systems in the field by 2020.
Perhaps the Pentagon cannot do it alone. Vickers urges the military to learn how to benefit from the best research conducted in the commercial world, rather than fund all the research itself. There is even research underway to determine whether the Pentagon is spending enough on research: A 13-month study is looking at whether the DOD's Science and Technology program is adequate to maintain American superiority in air and space through 2020.
There are other, more subtle, problems caused by cuts in science and technology funding. One important side effect is that graduate students who help form research teams lose their funding. "That affects the research DOD was interested in, but it also affects the pool of talent available for commercial and government organizations," says Etter. That is why the Department stresses stability in funding at the 6.1 level; even if the dollar amounts are not ideal, the object is to avoid wild swings in funding from one year to the next in order to keep research teams together. The Department is looking for other new ways to make its dollars go further. One program that officials at the Pentagon consider successful is the Multidisciplinary Research program of the University Research Initiative, or MURI. It is designed, in part, to help build research teams. "Funding goes to combinations of people who work together who wouldn't traditionally work together," says Etter. "The program is designed to come up with new ways of encouraging innovation that cuts across several areas. Major schools across the country, from MIT to Georgia Tech to the California Institute of Technology, receive MURI funds. Each year, MURI funds are awarded on topics defined by DOD agencies. In 1999, for example, the armed services made 19 awards in areas such as semiconductor physics, novel optical and infrared materials, and quantum information physics.
According to Pentagon documents, the MURI program has produced results. Researchers at Purdue University and the University of Southern California, for example, improved algorithms to get information about terrain and urban landscapes from "imagery data." The key innovation was the ability to use information from hundreds of bands across the electromagnetic spectrum, from infrared to ultraviolet. Previously, only a small number of bands were used. The technique allows military and intelligence analysts to identify buildings and road grids accurately, which will help commanders get an accurate, real-time look at the battlefield. Elsewhere, scientists at the University of California at San Diego have developed "metallic-intermetallic, laminated composites" that can be used in armor for tanks. Lightweight and cheap, they have been shown to stop small-arms fire at high velocities. Work is now being done on layering the materials. DOD hopes to get armor that is easier to make and has better ballistic performance.
Picking the Best
These projects pass the gee-whiz test. But the challenge for the Pentagon is to sort through many promising projects and choose the best university research program to back. There are some guiding principles. In areas where industry is doing research, the Defense Department is trying not to duplicate it. The classic example is the information technology field, where industry is at the cutting edge. But DOD hasn't backed off entirely. Instead, it is focusing on niches ignored by industry but important to the national defense, such as information assurance. The Department is funding research on critical infrastructure protection, particularly in networks and software. A second principle: the department is funding initial research in areas like gallium arsenite chips that industry could not afford; when technology is viable, industry steps in and reaches a broader market. What does the future hold? As long as the research community continues to keep legislators abreast of the value of academic research, exciting developments in science and technology are likely to be funded at the levels necessary to maintain a stong defense and a strong economy.
Bruce Auster is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.