Divide Science & Technology and Research & Development

April 2005
By Vice Adm. Herbert A. Browne, USN (Ret.)

No one could possibly question the logic of using scarce U.S. Defense Department resources to fully fund the ongoing war on terrorism. If we can spend an extra dollar to prevent one of our military people from being injured in Afghanistan or Iraq, then certainly we should do that.

However, we must not lose sight of another need. We also must be mindful to ensure that supporting today’s readiness does not mortgage our future. This is not a new problem; it is one that the defense community always faces. Now, it has become especially acute as U.S. and coalition forces are engaged in combat overseas against a shadow enemy.

To maintain an effective military in this critical time for our national security, the United States must continue to invest in science and technology on the government side. I differentiate it from research and development, which belongs on the commercial side.

There is a significant difference between science and technology versus research and development, and government funding should be delineated along these lines. Science and technology involves pushing the outside of the technology envelope to generate breakthroughs in engineering disciplines or even in basic science itself. Research and development is focused more on generating an end product that may owe its origins to proven science and technology.

With these definitions in mind, in these times of scarce resources it is better to concentrate funds for government work on science and technology. In this approach, government would perform the most basic scientific exploration and leave industry to develop the emerging technology into a usable product. This would provide definite benefits to both sectors.

For some reason, industry has begun to view government and service laboratories as competitors for resources. Many of these industry complaints resonate across the defense community. Some companies will not do business with one agency because it performs so much of its needed work in-house. Another agency is spurned because its own laboratories are pursuing the most important technologies.

These points of view are counterproductive. The true leading-edge science and technology concepts, processes, hardware and software should be the purview of the national laboratory system. If done properly, this approach could have broad-based benefits across the government, military and commercial arenas.

There are several good reasons the government should take on basic science and technology work. One is simply put: Government laboratories can afford to fail. No amount of basic research can succeed if scientists are afraid of failure. When experts are striving to push the limits of scientific knowledge beyond known parameters, they must be prepared to stumble along the way. Trial and error is a way of life, and a productive one. Thomas Edison used to define inventiveness as “2 percent inspiration, 98 percent perspiration.” Government facilities can afford to explore unknown venues in search of dramatic technology breakthroughs.

It is perfectly acceptable for government laboratories to fail along the way in pursuit of new science and technology advances. However, private industry must focus on achieving positive results or face extinction. Failure cannot be an option. That is why the commercial sector is best suited for taking the most promising advances discovered in government facilities and turning them into products for users. The successes obtained at high risk by government laboratories can be transformed into capabilities effectively and efficiently by the private sector—and with a much lower risk factor. And, industry would be held accountable for the fruits of this research and development.

The benefits that emerge from government laboratories can—and should—be moved to the private sector. Part of the task of these government science and technology laboratories should be to develop the means to transition technologies to industry partners. The most beneficial technologies can be used by industry in research and development for future capabilities in the defense arena.

To make this happen, lawyers from both government and industry must agree on methodologies that do not violate any laws or regulations. The two parties must develop a plan that provides a logical and practical transition for the most fruitful science and technology concepts from government to industry. The goal is the implementation of a government-industry partnership process that conforms with conflict of interest and ethics rules while allowing technology transition.

By assigning science and technology to the government and leaving research and development to the private sector, the defense community may well see fewer cost overruns and fewer delays, which often are caused by industry pushing the outside of the envelope a bit too far. A complementary step would be to place research and development in the acquisition contract.

There is no need for current exigencies to drain resources from the future. All that is needed is a new partnership based on the new roles of government and industry in science and technology as well as research and development. Done properly, this could be a win-win partnership for decades to come.