A viable approach to increasing STEM starts with empathy
How to Involve the Military in the Innovation Process
The first time you see a Stealth bomber come in for a landing, there is a moment when, as the aircraft lines up for the runway, it goes from being a giant presence on the horizon to being a faint, thin line in the sky.
It only lasts for a second, just long enough for you to doubt -- to start to look left and right -- to wonder if it's real. Then it's looming before you again. And that's the moment you know:
Ah. That's Stealth.
But, really, where's the commercial application? Do civilians need aircraft to be invisible?
The answer, of course, is no. But the aircraft's graphite fiber-reinforced composite inspired the advanced composites used today in the up-and-coming designs of more fuel efficient, larger and quieter commercial aircraft like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner shown at the Innovation Summit.
Yet how quickly would the commercial sector have developed such innovations had it not been for military money? That question is part of a long-standing debate over the value of defense-related research.
During the Innovation Summit, more than one speaker bemoaned the up-and-downs of research funding in the United States and its impact on the decline in the nation's status as a global leader in innovation.
Almost 60 percent of the money the federal government puts into research and development is related to the Department of Defense. That's not expected to change much over the next few years because, as Cheryl Martin, deputy director of commercialization at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, put it, cutbacks in defense can be measured in dollars "and in blood."
Because of that, as some pundits are quick to note, politicians find protecting military spending to be expedient. And that means cuts in federal R&D spending must, by necessity, come from other arenas.
So what is the impact of defense spending on innovation? The quick answer to that often comes back: the internet, a project began in the early 1960s by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the precursor to ARPA-E.
There are plenty of other examples: World War I brought advances in the understanding of gases and explosives, World War II in jet aircraft, radar and atomic sciences (and from that the creation of global positioning systems), and the Cold War brought innovations in computing, mathematics and space technologies.
But others have long argued that the development of commercial applications of defense-related research have been hampered by the secrecy surrounding most military projects and the accompanying array of government procurement regulations.
While the first Stealth bomber became operational in the Air Force in 1993, because of secrecy concerns, it wasn't until nine years later that Boeing could unveil it's Bird of Prey technology demonstrator that helped define some of the project's breakthroughs.
Still others have argued that the cumbersome military process led to inefficiencies in civilian research and development that contributed to the nation's lag in innovation.
In January, the U.S. Commerce Department released a report on "The Competitiveness and Innovation Capacity of the United States," that both touted the Defense Department's role in R&D and also called on the private sector to step up its support of basic research.
Private sector operations naturally are drawn more to the latter stages of R&D, when the development of a particular product with profit potential is the easier sell to company stakeholders, the report said. But it also added that innovation often comes at the beginning of research.
The report suggests ways to foster more private sector investment in research, including extending tax credits for private R&D as incentive, improve the "methods by which basic research is transferred from the lab into commercial products," and the development of regional innovation clusters.
The clusters are "geographic concentrations of interconnected businesses, suppliers, service providers, coordinating intermediaries, and associated institutions like universities or community colleges in a particular field," that together form an "innovation eco-system" in the development of new ideas and technologies.
The Defense Department has already jumped in, working with the Small Business Administration to develop clusters focusing on such advanced technologies as robotics, energy and cyber-security.
Meanwhile, defense-related R&D will continue to be debated, in the congressional halls where funding is approved, and in the discussions of what really is the value of military research.
And, it can all be followed -- if one is interested -- on the internet.
- AJ Plunkett is a veteran reporter and editor based in Virginia with more than 27 years of experience. As a reporter, she's gone from covering the oil industry and Navy in South Texas, to military and defense industries of Hampton Roads, to the budget battles fought in the halls of the Pentagon and Congress. She has followed stories to Saudi Arabia and Somalia, as well as across the United States.
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