Can DOD preserve science and technology as budget ax swings?

As the Defense Department prepares to slash its budget by billions, some high-level officials are fighting to maintain spending in science, technology and cyber, stressing that investment in those areas will be crucial for a smaller, more agile future force.

Some of DOD’s top scientists told a panel of members from the House Armed Services Committee that they have established priorities in each of the respective services that will help keep science and technology research, development and deployment on track as budgets shrink in coming years, according to a DOD release.

“Our ability to support the warfighter … depends on our ability to sustain a science, technology, engineering and mathematics, [or] STEM, workforce in our active and reserve ranks and our research laboratories,” said Matthew Klunder, chief of naval research, in the March 1 discussion on Capitol Hill.

For the Navy, that will mean strategic investments in and use of the Naval Research Laboratory – something that will be a challenge for the service, which, due to budget cuts, reduced its top science and technologies from 13 to nine in its long-term strategic guidance released in January.

The Army has put significant effort into planning its science and technology priorities for coming years, including with a major effort in 2011 under which senior Army leaders collaborated to establish 24 top challenges to receive near-term research focus, according to Dr. Marilyn Freeman, Army deputy assistant secretary for research and technology.


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“My vision for Army [science and technology] is to invent, innovate and demonstrate technology-enabled capabilities that empower, unburden and protect our soldiers,” she told the congressmen. “It's important that we keep the cadre of scientists and engineers in our laboratory systems to solve our problems. It is absolutely essential that we work on this problem together.”

Still, the cuts already under way and yet to come are forcing DOD officials to take some gambles in what they prioritize.

Freeman said decreased funding has meant taking risks in what leaders choose to receive precious dollars. For the Army, that has meant discretionary spending on some aspects of unmanned aerial vehicles, she said.

For the Air Force, those risks have equaled cuts to high-tech investments in some areas, including “work in micro UAVs, deployed airbase technologies, some thermal sciences and some plug-and-play activity for small [satellites] that we just never got the industry to buy into,” said Dr. Steven H. Walker, Air Force deputy assistant secretary for science, technology and engineering.

While tradeoffs like those outlined by Freeman and Walker will be unavoidable as defense funding is cut, the officials emphasized that keeping science and technology as a high priority will help solve a range of problems that will inevitably accompany slashed spending.

“We believe the key to achieving this goal lies in supporting STEM education in the continuum of experiences…from kindergarten all the way through post-doctoral opportunities,” Klunder said.

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