America needs a whole-of-government approach to studying unidentified aerial phenomena
Revelations about unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAPs, expose the hubris of ridiculing a topic worthy of scientific study. UAPs, better known as UFOs, exist, with Navy pilots reporting them routinely violating our restricted military airspace. Yet our government evidently has ignored, quashed or compartmentalized information about UAPs for decades — jeopardizing scientific progress, national security and democratic accountability.
Fortunately, NASA is now investigating UAPS, and the Pentagon is examining its handling of the matter. Congress awaits a report on UAPs from the director of national intelligence, and many expect the report largely to rule out UAPs being U.S. or foreign technology. If so, policymakers should consider how America can better understand these potentially paradigm-changing phenomena.
One approach is to form an independent science and technology agency to research UAPs, along with other priorities such as cancer and artificial intelligence. The agency’s chief, the director of national research, would advise the president, sit on the National Security Council and bring an interdisciplinary, whole-of-government approach to science that’s nonexistent among today’s sprawling bureaucracy.
As the director of national intelligence leads the intelligence community, the director of national research would allocate America’s research budget and run the National Labs, NASA and the National Institutes of Health, among others. As the defense department sets our national defense strategy, this agency would mandate America’s long-term research mission, partnering with universities, businesses, non-profits and international actors to accomplish it.
Importantly, the agency should direct civilian and most military research, as Vannevar Bush urged in “Science the Endless Frontier,” a report to President Truman that established America’s postwar research program. The agency also must strike a balance between independence – crucial in scientific inquiry – and accountability. Its director should be Senate-approved and report to Congress. But the agency should run unfettered by the 90-odd legislative panels that oversee the Department of Homeland Security. Models include the National Science Foundation, which administers research grants, and the technocratic Federal Reserve System.
Restructuring America’s scientific endeavor is daunting. Today, research dollars swirl in an alphabet soup of agencies, councils and contractors, with little coordination, strategy or accountability. These include the departments of agriculture, commerce, defense, energy, health and human services and transportation, along with the EPA, NASA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Science Foundation and CIA. Research is often tangential but rarely fundamental. Indeed, the Department of Energy (nicknamed the “department of everything”) owns the country’s 17 National Labs, yet outsources its management to a hodgepodge of universities, businesses and nonprofits.
Political meddling likewise distorts strategic vision. Incoming presidents redefine NASA’s goals, despite the costs and lead times of space missions. The Pentagon devotes an entire program to legislators’ pet research projects, while Congress exercises checkered oversight of the energy department. President Biden elevated the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy to Cabinet rank and Congress may consider legislation to strengthen it. But the position lacks legal authority to attend meetings of the White House’s National Science and Technology Council down the hall, let alone direct the National Labs.
Our national security requires fixing that. After 9/11, America’s intelligence agencies learned that decentralization (and its stovepipes and turf wars) spells disaster. That is equally true of the government’s research arms, which uphold our cutting edge. The intelligence community sought to correct mistakes by reporting to a single director. America’s research programs should follow suit, working as one with the defense and intelligence communities to explain the unexplained.
To be clear, the challenge might not come from UAPs, whose intentions remain mysterious, but from China and Russia. The first country to unlock UAPs’ astonishing capabilities – including instantaneous acceleration and “anti-gravity” propulsion – could achieve global dominance. As the indispensable nation, however, America does things differently. We must lead, engaging internationally with friend and foe to face this issue together, not sprint in an arms race where winner and runner-up share a tinderbox for their prize.
Lastly, UAPs pose diverse questions, suggesting an interdisciplinary approach that could reinvigorate scientific progress. Many observe that physics is stuck while research has slowed — all while UAPs show technology imagined on “Star Trek.” UAPs implicate propulsion, metamaterials, nanotechnology and more. No one program researches these subjects, despite rumors that government or private researchers have studied UAPs covertly. If true, at least America has lent the topic credence. But undue secrecy thwarts interdisciplinary progress, raises costs and evades accountability, eroding trust in our democracy. The government’s UAP research should be run by the national research director, who would answer to Congress, which answers to the people.
The United States leads the world and attracts its brightest minds. UAPs could herald history’s most consequential development, but America must organize its house before braving the endless frontier.
Dillon Guthrie is a counsel at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, previously practiced at Ropes & Gray LLP and at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP. He served as an adviser on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and, before that, as an aide to then-Senator John Kerry. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.