Let's put the 'funded' back in FFRDC

illustration dollar sign in vise

Federally funded research and development centers -- federally sponsored private/public organizations that conduct research on behalf of the government -- are an essential mechanism for evaluating innovative solutions for the government. That process helps alleviate some of the barriers to adoption, including lengthy certification and accreditation requirements that can delay deployments and the excessive reliance on legacy platforms.

Unfortunately, government funding for FFRDCs has decreased dramatically in the past few years, limiting their ability to deliver that type of service on a large scale.

Among other functions, FFRDCs are responsible for testing and prevalidating emerging technologies in the public sector. As Defense Acquisition University put it, they are  "unique nonprofit entities sponsored and funded by the U.S. government to meet some special long-term research or development need which cannot be met as effectively by existing in-house or contractor resources."

Given their public/private nature, FFRDCs are unique in their approach and their value because they bring new, better technologies into the government space that otherwise would not have existed. They provide the government with alternatives to its traditional avenues of acquisition, which often make it difficult to introduce new IT into the federal procurement cycle.

Despite the enormous value of those institutions -- which range from the Energy Department's national laboratories to NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab -- their federal funding has been falling in recent years. A National Science Foundation study found that "federal funding has consistently accounted for over 96 percent of FFRDC's total R&D expenditures since 2001, but these federally funded expenditures have been declining since a high of $18 billion reported in FY 2010."

As a result, the ability of FFRDCs to test and prevalidate new solutions for the public sector has declined as well. That must change.

Current government requests for proposals and requests for information tend to favor legacy systems and incumbents, curtailing the possibility for real innovation. As a result, agencies are suffering from being anchored to the status quo.

For example, despite mandates such as the Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative and Executive Order 13693, which call for substantial reductions to federal data center space and energy metrics, Congress recently gave 15 agencies a grade of F for data center consolidation. That lack of progress can be attributed, at least in part, to the government's dependence on legacy systems.

That dependence has become a 75 percent run-rate expense line on the annual budget and is preventing our public servants from using modern technology to achieve their missions.

In order for agencies to take full advantage of innovative technologies, the hurdles associated with assessing, procuring and deploying them must be reduced. Increasing funding to FFRDCs is a practical, low-risk way to improve the situation.

Allowing FFRDCs to test and evaluate new technologies, serve as a sort of incubator for innovation and provide the stamp of approval on the effectiveness, security and reliability of solutions would be a significant step toward fixing the government's innovation problem. It could enable agencies to make requests for innovation instead of relying on the status quo, cut down on the time associated with the certification and accreditation process and help alleviate some of the perceived risks of adoption.

By increasing funding for FFRDCs, the government could continue to reap the benefits of innovation. Digital forensic advancements, the Traffic Collision Avoidance System and the Mars Exploration Rover Mission all originated from the FFRDC program. We must invest to find, test and certify the next generation of government-changing innovations.

About the Author

Greg O'Connell is director of federal and FSI sales at Nutanix.


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