Magazine article National Defense

Basic Research Suffers as Pressure Mounts to Respond to 'Wars of the Month'

Magazine article National Defense

Basic Research Suffers as Pressure Mounts to Respond to 'Wars of the Month'

Article excerpt

The drumbeat from the top echelons of the Pentagon has been clear: Put technologies in the hands of soldiers, marines, airmen and sailors that can help them win today's wars.

Shorten acquisition cycles. Stop monk-eying around hoping for 100 percent solutions, when a 70 percent solution will do.

But will the immediate demands of current conflicts come at the sacrifice of the future? Basic research--from which almost all new technologies sprout--may be getting the short shrift, experts have said.

The United States has long been the envy of the world when it comes to developing game-changing technologies. From the Internet, to GPS and some of the specialized materials found in cell phones, the Defense Department often has been the driver behind some of the ubiquitous tools the world now depends on.

That may not be the case in the future, warned the Jasons, an independent Pentagon science advisory group comprising some of the defense realm's top thinkers.

"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," said a previously classified May 2009 report, "S&T for National Security," which was obtained by the Federation of American Scientists, and posted on the FAS website.

The Jasons detect in the four services a "drift away from long-term imperatives to short-term needs," the report stated.

Steady science and technology budgets belie deeper problems, the group said. "The recent increases in S&T funding are encouraging, but the structural and work force problems are so systematic and deep that increased funding will not solve the problems," the report stated.

What's at risk?

Basic research driven by operational needs will produce only incremental advances of existing weapon systems, the report states. Revolutionary, game-changing technologies may end up in the hands of adversaries who are more committed to basic research.

There's no clearer example of how basic research translates into a successful weapon system than GPS, the report noted. A Defense Department research program that examined fundamental atomic physics lasted for decades, and resulted in continual improvements to atom-based optical clocks. These precise timing devices made the Global Positioning System possible, which today aids in everything from navigation to precision-guided munitions, and has crossed over into the commercial market.

"These advances enabled a system having revolutionary impact on military capabilities, civilian life and basic sciences," the report said.

While the money budgeted for the service's laboratories has remained steady, the "drift" includes many programs classified as basic research--or 6.1 programs in budgetary lingo--but upon closer examination, are actually shorter-term applied 6.2 research projects, the report said.

It's not wise for the services to depend on other organizations to invest in basic research, and then apply the outsiders' findings to new technologies, the report said. The Defense Department has many unique needs that may never have commercial applications such as hypersonics, underwater acoustics, radiation-hardened electronics for space and remote sensing systems.

James Canton, CEO and chairman of the Institute for Global Futures, and a consultant to Defense Department and intelligence agencies, said the swing away from basic research is something he worries about "every day and every night. …

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