DoD Suppressed Critique of Military Research

10.08.09 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

“Important aspects of the DOD basic research programs are ‘broken’,” according to an assessment performed by the JASON defense science advisory panel earlier this year, and “throwing more money at the problems will not fix them.”

But that rather significant conclusion was deliberately suppressed by Pentagon officials who withheld it from public disclosure when a copy of the JASON report was requested under the Freedom of Information Act.  Instead, it was made public this week by Congress in the conference report on the FY 2010 defense authorization act, which quoted excerpts from the May 2009 JASON report, “Science and Technology for National Security.”

“Basic research funding is not exploited to seed inventions and discoveries that can shape the future,” the JASONs also determined, as quoted in the congressional report (in discussion of the act’s section 213).  Instead, “investments tend to be technological expenditures at the margin.”

Furthermore, “the portfolio balance of DOD basic research is generally not critically reviewed by independent, technically knowledgeable individuals,” and “civilian career paths in the DOD research labs and program management are not competitive to other opportunities in attracting outstanding young scientists and retaining the best people.”

These dismal findings, and the large bulk of the unclassified 60 page JASON report, were withheld under the Freedom of Information Act by the Office of Director of Defense Research and Engineering.  They constitute “subjective evaluations, opinions and recommendations which are currently being evaluated as to their impact on the planning and decision-making process,” according to the August 31, 2009 FOIA denial letter (pdf).

The few paragraphs of the study that were released (pdf) nevertheless including some interesting observations.  Citing a 2008 report in Science magazine, for example, the JASONs noted that “Peking and Tsinghua Universities have now overtaken Berkeley and Michigan as the largest undergraduate alma maters of PhD recipients in the U.S.”

The DoD research laboratories should be abolished, the late Gen. William Odom suggested some years ago.  “Few of them have invented anything of note in several decades, and many of the things they are striving to develop are already available in the commercial sector,” he wrote.

“Sadly, these laboratories not only waste money on their own activities; they also resist the purchase of available technologies from the commercial sector. Because they are generally so far behind the leading edges in some areas, they cause more than duplication; they also induce retardation and sustain obsolescence,” Odom wrote (“America’s Military Revolution,” American University Press, 1993, p. 159).

But Don J. DeYoung of the National Defense University argued that the decline of the military laboratories should be reversed, not accepted.  “The loss of in-house scientific and engineering expertise impairs good governance, poses risks to national security, and sustains what President Dwight Eisenhower called ‘a disastrous rise of misplaced power’.”  See “Breaking the Yardstick: The Dangers of Market-Based Governance” (pdf), Joint Forces Quarterly, 4th Quarter, 2009.