The Department of Defense (DOD) supports basic research to advance fundamental knowledge in fields important to national defense. Over the past 6 years, however, several groups have raised concerns about whether the nature of DOD-funded basic research is changing. The concerns include these: Funds are being spent for research that does not fall under DOD’s definition of basic research; reporting requirements have become cumbersome and onerous; and basic research is handled differently by the three services. To explore these concerns, the Congress directed DOD to request a study from the National Research Council (NRC) about the nature of the basic research now being funded by the Department. Specifically, the NRC was to determine if the programs in the DOD basic research portfolio are consistent with the DOD definition of basic research and with the characteristics associated with fundamental research.
SUMMARY OF FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
No significant quantities of 6.1 funds (basic research) have been directed toward projects that are typical of research funded under categories 6.2 or 6.3. DOD managers are generally successful in assuring that the basic research funded by DOD fits within its definition. That definition, which precludes having “specific applications … in mind” for basic research funded under category 6.1, is not, however, a useful criterion for discriminating between basic and applied research. DOD should modify its definition by acknowledging that basic research “has the potential for broad, rather than specific, application” and “may lead to: … the discovery of new knowledge that may later lead to more focused advances.”
It is also important to note that the need for discovery from basic research does not end once a specific use is identified, but continues through applied research, development, and operations stages. Basic research is not part of a sequential, linear process from basic research, to applied research, to development, and to application. DOD should view basic research, applied research, and development as continuing activities occurring in parallel, with numerous supporting connections throughout the process.
At the same time, there has been a trend within DOD for reduced attention to unfettered exploration in its basic research program. Near-term DOD needs are producing significant pressure to focus basic research in support of those needs. DOD needs to realign the balance of its basic research effort more in favor of unfettered exploration. Senior DOD management should support long-term exploration and discovery and communicate this understanding to its research managers. Long-term, reliable DOD leadership support for basic research depends on a clear understanding of the research’s expected value.
The key to effective management of basic research lies in having experienced, empowered managers. DOD’s personnel policies should provide for continuity of research management with managers having an adequate level of authority. DOD should also include within the attributes it assigns to the management of its basic research the discovery of new fundamental knowledge, flexibility to modify goals and approaches, freedom to pursue unexpected paths and high-risk research questions, minimum requirements for detailed reporting, open communications, freedom to publish, unrestricted involvement of students and postdoctoral fellows, no restrictions on nationality of researchers, and stable funding.
The breadth and depth of science and technology (S&T) essential to the DOD mission have expanded greatly in the past decade while simultaneously resources provided for basic research have declined significantly. DOD should adjust its basic research allocation to be more in line with its need to pursue research into expanded areas of S&T and to support more unfettered research and new researchers.
Much greater involvement of university researchers is probably essential to meet the demand for new discovery. Acquiring support from DOD, however, is often difficult for many young university researchers. Furthermore, placing export controls on DOD-sponsored 6.1 research disqualifies it from being considered basic research as defined by NSDD-189 and poses a significant threat to the open character of basic research performed in universities. DOD should recognize NSDD-189, the fundamental research exclusion that provides for the unrestricted character of basic research, in its agreements with universities to perform such research.
SPECIFIC FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
The committee’s findings and recommendations, which appear in the main body of the report with related discussion, are presented below.
Finding 1. Department of Defense basic research funds under 6.1 have not been directed in significant amounts to support projects typical of 6.2 or 6.3 funding.
Finding 2. Research managers are well motivated and generally successful in focusing 6.1 funding on the discovery of fundamental knowledge in support of the range of Department of Defense needs.
Finding 3. Having specific applications in mind is not a useful criterion for discriminating between basic and applied research.
Finding 4. The set of attributes and desirable characteristics of basic research widely shared among experienced basic research managers can be beneficial in distinguishing between basic and applied research.
Finding 5. The basic research needs of the Department of Defense are complex and do not end when specific applications are identified.
Finding 6. The need for ongoing discovery from basic research can, and usually does, continue through the applied research, system development, and system operation phases.
Finding 7. Included in the range of values expected from basic research in the Department of Defense are (1) discovery arising from unfettered exploration, (2) focused research in response to identified DOD technology needs, and (3) assessment of technical feasibility.
Finding 8. A recent trend in basic research emphasis within the Department of Defense has led to a reduced effort in unfettered exploration, which historically has been a critical enabler of the most important breakthroughs in military capabilities.
Finding 9. Generated by important near-term Department of Defense needs and by limitations in available resources, there is significant pressure to focus DOD basic research more narrowly in support of more specific needs.
Finding 10. Universities, government laboratories, and industry have overlapping roles in basic research: universities primarily address the creation of broad new knowledge and human competencies, and Department of Defense laboratories and industry are more sharply focused on discovery tied more directly to identified DOD needs.
Finding 11. A clear understanding of the value expected from basic research across its full range provides the most reliable assurance of long-term Department of Defense leadership support for the basic research.
Finding 12. A variety of management approaches in the Department of Defense is appropriate to the widely diverse missions and motivations for basic research.
Finding 13. The key to effective management of basic research lies in having experienced and empowered program managers. Current assignment policies and priorities (such as leaving substantial numbers of program manager positions unfilled) are not always consistent with this need, which might result in negative consequences for the effectiveness of basic research management in the long term.
Finding 14. The breadth and depth of the sciences and technologies essential to the Department of Defense mission have greatly expanded over the past decade.
Finding 15. In real terms the resources provided for Department of Defense basic research have declined substantially over the past decade.
Finding 16. The demand for new discovery argues for significantly increased involvement of university researchers. Yet some younger university researchers in the expanded fields of interest to the Department of Defense are often discouraged by the difficulty in acquiring research support from the department.
Finding 17. Recent pressures to apply restrictions on participation and publication through export controls on Department of Defense-sponsored research funded in 6.1 both disqualify it from being considered basic research as defined by National Security Decision Directive 189 and threaten to change fundamentally the open and public character of basic university research. This finding does not apply to research funded in 6.2.
Recommendation 1. The Department of Defense should change its definition of basic research to the following:
Basic research is systematic study directed toward greater knowledge or understanding of the fundamental aspects of phenomena and has the potential for broad, rather than specific, application. It includes all scientific study and experimentation directed toward increasing fundamental knowledge and understanding in those fields of the physical, engineering, environmental, social, and life sciences related to long-term national security needs. It is farsighted high-payoff research that provides the bases for technological progress. Basic research may lead to (a) subsequent applied research and advance technology developments in Defense-related technologies, (b) new and improved military functional capabilities, or (c) the discovery of new knowledge that may later lead to more focused advances in areas relevant to the Department of Defense.
Recommendation 2. The Department of Defense should include the following attributes in its guidance to basic research managers and direct that these attributes be used to characterize 6.1-funded research: a spirit that seeks first and foremost to discover new fundamental understanding, flexibility to modify goals or approaches in the near term based on discovery, freedom to pursue unexpected paths opened by new insights, high-risk research questions with the potential for high payoff in future developments, minimum requirements for detailed reporting, open communications with other researchers and external peers, freedom to publish in journals and present at meetings without restriction and permission, unrestricted involvement of students and postdoctoral candidates, no restrictions on the nationality of researchers, and stable funding for an agreed timetable to carry out the research.
Recommendation 3. The Department of Defense should abandon its view of basic research as being part of a sequential or linear process of research and development (in this view, the results of basic research are handed off to applied research, the results of applied research are handed off to advanced technology development, and so forth). Instead, the DOD should view basic research, applied research, and the other phases of research and development as continuing activities that occur in parallel, with numerous supporting connections among them.
Recommendation 4. The Department of Defense should set the balance of support within 6.1 basic research more in favor of unfettered exploration than of research related to short-term needs.
Recommendation 5. Senior Department of Defense leadership should clearly communicate to research managers its understanding of the need for long-term exploration and discovery.
Recommendation 6. Personnel policies should provide for the needed continuity of research management in order to ensure a cadre of experienced managers capable of exercising the level of authority needed to effectively direct research resources. Further, in light of the reductions in positions reported to the Committee on Department of Defense Basic Research, the Department of Defense should carefully examine the adequacy of the number of basic research management positions.
Recommendation 7. The Department of Defense should redress the imbalance between its current basic research allocation, which has declined critically over the past decade, and its need to better support the expanded areas of technology, the need for increased unfettered basic research, and the support of new researchers.
Recommendation 8. The Department of Defense should, through its funding and policies for university research, encourage increased participation by younger researchers as principal investigators.
Recommendation 9. To avoid weakening the long and fruitful partnership between universities and Department of Defense agencies, DOD agreements and subagreements with universities for basic research should recognize National Security Decision Directive 189, the fundamental research exclusion providing for the open and unrestricted character of basic research. DOD program managers should also explicitly retain the authority to negotiate export compliance clauses out of basic research grants to universities, on the basis of both the program’s specific technologies and its objectives.