JASON: Basic Research at the Pentagon is “Broken”

Basic scientific research sponsored by the Department of Defense has suffered a precipitous decline in recent years, according to a newly disclosed 2009 report (pdf) from the JASON defense advisory panel.

“Basic research” refers to the investigation of fundamental phenomena, and contrasts with “applied research” that aims to meet a specific mission requirement or to solve a specified problem.

“Over the past decade, there has been an exodus of scientific and technical expertise from the U.S. government and, in particular, from the DoD [basic] research enterprise,” the JASONs said.

“Gone are many of the technically literate program officers who plied the streets of the scientific community to find those remarkable people who could help shape the future. Gone too are many of the scientists and engineers in the academic community [who were supported by DoD basic research contracts] and who contributed to revolutionary advances that changed the landscape of modern war fighting. And most importantly, lost is the opportunity to develop the next generation of scientific talent who would otherwise have been trained and capable of carrying the research enterprise forward.”

“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,” the report said.

The JASONs nevertheless offer a series of recommendations concerning program organization and personnel recruitment to strengthen basic research. Among other things, they say that DoD should reject the “peer review” model for evaluating funding decisions, since that tends to reinforce the status quo, and should instead provide funding to exceptional individuals. They favorably cite Nobel laureate Luis Alvarez saying: “In my considered opinion the peer review system, in which proposals rather than proposers are reviewed, is the greatest disaster to be visited upon the scientific community this century….”

The JASON report was originally marked “for official use only.” When the Federation of American Scientists requested it last year under the Freedom of Information Act, most of the document was withheld as “deliberative.” But upon appeal, DoD agreed this month to release the entire report. To accompany the release, Alan R. Shaffer, Director of Defense Research and Engineering, issued a cover memorandum stating that the JASON report was “one perspective” among several and that it was not based on a comprehensive data set.

See “S & T for National Security,” JASON Summer Study, completed May 2009, released May 2010.

No Responses to “JASON: Basic Research at the Pentagon is “Broken””

  1. Dfens May 20, 2010 at 11:16 AM #

    Welcome to the “projectizing” of the military-industrial complex. Back when we had a functioning procurement system, technical people in both industry and government worked for a functional organization. That is, they got hired and fired, and got their promotions from their functional organization. These groups of people with similar technical backgrounds also had the final say over how research and development funds were spent.

    After all, programs are generally against the development of new technology. They don’t want to become obsolete, so program people typically spend all their time coming up with reasons why new technology sucks and we should stick with the tried and true. These program types aren’t stupid and they don’t want to work themselves out of a job.

    We should go back to what works. People who work for the Air Force, should have an allegance to the Air Force rather than to the F-35. The good of the Air Force should be their top concern, not the good of the F-35. They should work for strong functional organizations that look out for the good of the Air Force, both in the way people are allocated and in the way research and development are directed. They should not just look out for the interests of the F-35. The same is true on the contractor side too.

    It’s funny, everyone says we need to fix this part of procurement or we need to fix that part. Really, it’s all the “fixing” we’ve done that’s got us to where we are now with little fighter airplanes taking 25 years to develop. If we’d stop “fixing” things all the time and go back to what worked in the past, we’d be a whole lot better off.

  2. Jawaralal Schwartz May 20, 2010 at 4:09 PM #

    Defens’s comment sounds spot on. I have not read the JASON report yet, but another thought comes quickly to mind. There is a mantle of graybeards and overseers who conceive, spec, oversee, and evaluate the basic research program. These experts are heavily from the usual FFRDCs, the usual universities, and a few other organizations. They have played a major role in squandering research budgets and brains, and sometimes with a visible but accepted conflict of interest. It has about the subtlety of medical school professors getting a few hundred K from Big Pharma. If you clean out these conflicted people, who would also like to spend on applied research and even finished products and services, the research program would look rather different. At least it would be better targeted. But this problem, writ rather large, explains why we continue to pour billions down such ratholes and missile defense, stupido Army systems (FCS is not really dead, sportsfans), and one too many fighters and lord help us, another bomber.