WASHINGTON — Less than a month after his Defense Innovation Board had its first public meeting, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is moving on a trio of suggestions on how to drive innovation forward for the Pentagon — including the creation of a new chief innovation officer position.
Carter made the announcement during a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He did not go into details about when that office would be stood up or who might fill that role.
"Many different organizations have recently embraced this position, and also started to regularly run these kinds of innovation tournaments and competitions — including tech companies like IBM, Intel and Google — and it's time we did as well, to help incentivize our people to come up with innovative ideas and approaches," Carter said about creating the chief innovation officer.
The suggestion was first raised by the Defense Innovation Board at an Oct. 5 public meeting. At the time, Cass Sunstein, a professor at Harvard Law School who has served in various government positions, described the sharing of best practices around the DoD as currently "less than ideal" and noted that the position could act as the umbrella from which funding for low-level projects could flow.
In addition to the creation of that spot, Carter said the Pentagon will launch targeted recruiting initiatives to increase recruitment of computer scientists and software engineers.
"We’ll do this through targeted recruiting initiatives ranging from our Reserve Officer Training Corps to our civilian Scholarship For Service program that’s intended to help build the next generation of DoD science and technology leaders, with the goal of making computer science a core competency of the Department of Defense," Carter said.
Carter later added that the Pentagon needs to do a better job directly recruiting on college campuses, noting that may require changes to hiring statutes.
College students "don't want to live a career that’s an escalator where you get on the bottom stair and you wait and it takes you up to the top," Carter said. "They want a jungle gym where they can get higher by climbing around. We need to recognize that’s the way many people see their lives."
However, Carter did not go as far as to endorse the "digital ROTC" idea put forth from the board’s public meeting.
Finally, the department is going to invest broadly in machine learning, including the creation of a "virtual center of excellence" that Carter said "establishes stretch goals and incentivizes academy and commercial technology companies [that] have been making significant strides."
That center of excellence was a direct suggestion from the board, which emphasized, as Carter has in the past, that machine learning will be key to all technologies going forward. Interestingly, the lead here will be taken by Carter’s Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) group, which will sponsor an initial prize challenge for machine learning issues.
Carter has made innovation a key part of his tenure, and of his legacy in the position. He has also tied those groups closely to his office, which some have speculated could be a problem when a new secretary comes in — an idea Carter dismissed in his speech.
"Going forward, I’m confident that the logic behind everything I’m talking about today will be self-evident to future defense secretaries, as will the value of these efforts — but they also need to have the momentum and institutional foundation to keep going under their own steam and continue to thrive," he said. "We must ensure they can keep leading the way and keep disrupting, challenging and inspiring the rest of the Defense Department to change for the better."