As global threats become more complex and frequent, so does our reliance on science and technology to keep them at bay. Federal research agencies like the Department of Defense ensure scientists and engineers have the resources they need to support the U.S. military.
While the fiscal 2022 defense appropriations bill includes slight increases in overall funding for research, development, testing, and evaluation, it also contains more than $800 million in shortsighted reductions for science and technology. These cuts threaten to weaken our position as a global leader in innovation, stifle economic growth, and hinder the development of cutting-edge technologies that keep our nation safe. As Congress determines the scope and agenda for American science through allocating federal funds across research agencies, it must adequately invest in the defense S&T that keeps our country safe and maintains our global military technological superiority.
Underinvestment in defense research is not a new phenomenon. Over the last 20 years, defense S&T has received a small and inconsistent share of the DoD’s overall budget — the consequences of which have already begun to show.
Budget shortfalls in FY20 meant the Multidisciplinary University Research Initiatives, or MURI, program, which brings together researchers from across disciplines to develop defense technologies with strong potential for commercial application, was unable to fund 339 of 365 research proposals. Cuts to the Minerva Research Initiative, the DoD’s powerhouse for basic research in the social sciences, have left it virtually incapacitated. The FY22 appropriations bill would slash funding for basic research by nearly $230 million more, further draining the lifeblood of all defense operations and leaving our nation vulnerable to advancements by foreign competitors.
Science funding for the DoD — including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Army Research Office, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and the Office of Naval Research — enables researchers to help the U.S. better prepare to meet tomorrow’s national security challenges. Take DARPA’s Pandemic Prevention Platform, for example, which has allowed researchers to rapidly identify COVID-19 antibodies and mobilize DoD personnel to contain outbreaks. The technology at the heart of the program has saved countless lives and accelerated vaccine and treatment research. It’s part of an innovation ecosystem that fosters cutting-edge developments in artificial intelligence, microelectronics, quantum, and more while also training the future defense workforce.
In fact, many of today’s advancements in next-generation technology would not exist without federal support for scientific research. Often conducted in partnership with colleges and universities, the DoD’s research investment has blossomed beyond campus. According to a report issued by the Science Coalition, spinoff companies rooted in federally funded research support hundreds of thousands of jobs and contribute billions of dollars in wages to the national gross domestic product. Scaling back funding for foundational programs like MURI subverts the pipeline of research from federal agency, such as the DoD, to university to spinoff company, diminishing our own insurance policy for long-term economic prosperity and national security.
Deepbits Technology Inc., for instance, was created from support awarded to researchers at UC Riverside by the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research and the Air Force’s AFWERX. Deepbits has developed a unique platform, Dr. Binary, that uses artificial intelligence, specifically deep learning, and formal verification methods to detect vulnerabilities, license violations and other threats directly on binary code. By applying novel AI technology, the Dr. Binary platform enables cybersecurity teams in companies, government agencies, military departments and more to conduct swift and precise binary audits for software security and compliance problems before attacks happen.
DARPA-sponsored research at the University of Pennsylvania led to the formation of Exyn Technologies, a company with nearly 200 employees. The researchers have revolutionized drone technology by fusing redundant sensors, mapping for obstacle avoidance, and planning autonomous flight in areas where GPS isn’t available, an invaluable capability for military and intelligence operations.
Companies created from federal funding at the DoD span industries, and sustained investment in defense research ensures we have the scientific resources to quickly address a multitude of national security issues. California-based Instrumems is built on technology that originally began at Princeton University in partnership with the Office of Naval Research. When COVID-19 hit, their proprietary sensors played an important part in improving respiratory medical devices such as ventilators, respirators, and asthma inhalers.
Investment in defense S&T today is critical for innovative solutions to the challenges of tomorrow. Thankfully, it’s not too late to reverse proposed funding cuts that put these vital advancements at risk. Congress must redouble their commitment and fund defense science and technology at a level that matches the demands of the American research enterprise and our national security needs.
John Latini is director of government relations at Penn State University and president of the Science Coalition, an organization comprised of public and private research universities.