A long-held military maxim is to take the high ground and hold it. That may be outdated in today’s electronic and high-tech battlefields, but that notion still holds true for scientific research and engineering. Research is the foundation for engineering invention, and that leadership in engineering underpins our national security and economy. Retaining the high ground in research and engineering is necessary to deter future conflicts, win future wars and maintain our standard of living.
Modern research started about 500 years ago with the development of the printing press. Based on prior approaches, Gutenberg’s printing press made the accumulation and spread of knowledge possible. His printing press enabled widespread learning and the dissemination of new data, thereby providing the foundation for new discoveries. This same process continues today but with a more organized and funded research structure.
For the U.S., the federal commitment to research was made after World War II and housed in the Department of Defense. This decision was largely driven by the need to confront a new enemy — the USSR. That federal commitment to research and engineering generated U.S. military and economic superiority, helping to seal victory in the Cold War. It also led to early-generation microelectronics, nuclear power, GPS and the internet, among dozens more transformational discoveries and many with both military and commercial applications.
How did all this happen? The department recognized the need to stay technically ahead of the enemy. The answer was a network of research laboratories that carried out critical research to advance military technology, much of it also fueling the domestic economy. The department still has this structure but it is now part of a much larger government research and innovation ecosystem that is in partnership with commercial sector research.
In addition to the Defense Department, out of necessity to be globally competitive, the research effort now includes the Department of Energy, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, university and philanthropy-funded research and a myriad of technology-based companies.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis indicated the need for this broad inter-agency and commercial research effort in his testimony to the House Armed Services Committee. “New commercial technologies will change society, and ultimately, they will change the character of war,” Mattis said. We must carry out research, “recognize its military potential, and develop new capabilities.”
Yet, we’re seemingly not doing enough to keep the research high ground. The Heritage Foundation recently released its index of military strength. After analyzing various essential components, Heritage ranked the capability of the U.S. Army and U.S. Marines as “marginal” and the U.S. Navy as “weak.” Reviews of our nation’s research capability — by Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and the American Academy of Arts & Science — likewise show that we’re losing ground. Assessments like these are always problematic, but they all indicate a common troubling finding: The U.S. is on a downward trend.
What this means is that our federal laboratories and research institutions aren’t aggressive enough and that the Defense Department is not reaping the rewards of the larger and more competitive commercial sector. Without the competition in the commercial sector that drives rapid innovation and engineering application, the government programs lack urgency. Agencies relying on up-to-date technology and innovation all need bolder and more urgent research plans, and Defense Department needs to more quickly convert the research results into engineering applications to deter, and when necessary, win future conflicts.
Equally important, all these agencies need to break through the barrier of accessing research from the commercial sector. Token steps have been taken but a necessary first step to attract the commercial sector is to dramatically reduce bureaucracy. For the Defense Department that means shaving the voluminous pages of acquisition regulations.
There are very few eureka moments when it comes to scientific breakthroughs. Rather, like Gutenberg’s printing press, scientific advances rely on prior knowledge. As knowledge accumulates, new knowledge is uncovered ever faster. But with this acceleration comes the need for ever more sophisticated equipment, highly educated and experienced researchers and a complex infrastructure of support.
All this takes money, but equally important it requires a predicable source of funding over multiple years. And here the White House and the Congress can be helpful — or not. Funding disruptions, common now at the federal level, cause havoc in the scientific community. It is detrimental to the economy and a disservice to the men and women who serve in the military and to all the nation’s research institutions.
The U.S. military and economy are based on technology superiority and that superiority is underpinned by being the best in the world in research and engineering innovation. Other nations understand this all too well, and they are accelerating their research programs while we seemingly stumble and falter. We do so at our peril.
Gordon England is a former secretary of the Navy and deputy secretary of Defense and currently the chairman of the National Academy of Engineering