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Government and the Private Sector Should Coordinate Research Efforts

December 2007
By Kent R. Schneider

In an era in which commercial research and development dominates scientific progress, government research is important—particularly for the military. It is research in critical technologies that allows our national security structure to maintain the edge—to differentiate the United States from potential adversaries. This enables force projection, allows us to work more effectively with our coalition partners, and maximizes our force effectiveness while minimizing loss of life for the United States.

The environment for research has changed dramatically over the past several decades. In the World War II era, government requirements drove much of the commercial research. AFCEA was created in 1946 to promote a better dialogue between the government and industry so that the efforts of industry could be more effectively channeled to meet government needs during a period of increasingly rapid change. Much of the technology developed for government later found its way into consumer products.

Now consumer and industrial demand drives most commercial research and development (R&D). In a reverse of the previous scenario, government, including the military, is adopting commercial products, built to commercial standards, to meet many of its needs. In many technology areas, this is an excellent approach, fully meeting government needs faster and cheaper than through a development process. The problem, in this new commercially oriented world, is that the government, particularly the military, has unique requirements with no analog in the commercial space.

It is in these areas of unique requirements that the government must continue to drive research, whether done by government research organizations or through government research and development contracts to industry. In order to best leverage the limited government R&D budget, an unprecedented level of communication is needed between government and industry. Government must understand what internal R&D is planned or ongoing in industry based on industry’s perception of the business case. At the same time, industry needs to understand the government’s unique requirements in a comprehensive way.

Much government research focuses on areas in which commercial research is either absent or limited. There is good reasoning behind this approach. Government need not expend valuable taxpayer dollars on efforts that duplicate commercial R&D. Most government R&D is basic research that either is beyond the reach of private laboratories or does not offer a clear return from the commercial marketplace.

But this approach need not be exclusionary. There is a third course that can be taken by government and commercial technology explorers. The two sectors can work together to coordinate complementary research efforts to the benefit of both parties.

There is room for, and a desire for, collaboration between government and industry on critical research. Industry, fully understanding the requirements, can embrace some government-unique R&D where a reasonable business case exists. Industry may also be able to suggest a commercial solution to what appears to be unique requirements. Where these approaches fail, industry can work with the government to find the most timely and cost-effective way to meet truly unique government research needs.

For example, the government may have a broad-based need for a particular technology that has not yet been developed and for which no clear commercial market has emerged. By working together early in the R&D process, the government may be able to show industry just where it can benefit from that research through government sales—and possibly where it even might lead to the creation of an entirely new commercial market. Or, the private sector might be able to offer some new capabilities of its own from unrelated research. The result could be more than complementary—it could be synergistic.

And, better government input to commercial research centers can steer ongoing private sector R&D in directions that address government needs before new devices begin to emerge from the assembly line. We are seeing that approach today in limited fashion as government officials strive to inform high technology companies about military requirements for information systems. Just a few tweaks in product design could incorporate features that are vital to military needs—and speed effective technologies to the warfighter sooner than ever experienced.

None of this can occur effectively without comprehensive and timely communication between government and industry on the government’s research needs. Fragmented efforts by disparate government agencies will not get the job done. Both parties need to commit to a broad-based approach to coordinated research. And, this needs to be an institutional process, not an appliqué. More needs to be done.