Navy Lab’s Future Is At Risk, Report Warns

07.13.20 | 4 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Updated below

The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) boasts an amazing record of achievement but its future is in jeopardy, according to a newly disclosed report of the Naval Research Advisory Committee that was suppressed by the Navy.

NRL is widely recognized as a world class research institution that has made transformational discoveries in many scientific fields from space science to marine biology, and it pioneered key technologies such as the Global Positioning System.

But that reputation is based mostly on past work. In 2018, the Secretary of the Navy tasked the Naval Research Advisory Committee (NRAC) to assess the Lab’s future role and effectiveness.

“NRL has a proud history of accomplishment,” the NRAC report concluded. “However, there are clear threats for its future.” A copy of the November 2018 interim report was obtained by Secrecy News after the Navy refused to release it.

One problem is that the physical state of the Naval Research Laboratory is a mess.

“We found that most of the facilities are in incredibly poor condition,” the NRAC report said. “Various NRL facilities and laboratories are experiencing leaks, heating and air conditioning problems, and other infrastructure failures.”

“Poor facilities lead to inefficient research, safety issues, and negative motivation for potential researchers,” NRAC said.

(On this point, at least, the Navy concurs with the advisory panel. “Due to their advanced age and deterioration, funds are planned to restore/modernize various laboratory facilities at the Naval Research Laboratory,” according to the Navy’s budget request for FY 2021.)

More subtly, NRL lacks a clear vision of its own future, NRAC said. “The bedrock of any organization is its strategy as captured in a formal strategic plan.” But NRL does not have a strategic plan for science and technology, the report said. Remarkably, neither does the Navy as a whole. Consequently, the NRL research program, buffeted by current needs and controversies, risks losing sight of more ambitious, long-term scientific goals.

Institutionally, the NRL has been isolated from Navy leadership to the detriment of both, according to the NRAC.

“Senior naval leaders are not connected directly with NRL nor do they participate in any routine meetings to keep them informed of specific areas of scientific import.”

“Senior naval leaders (i.e., SECNAV, CNO, CMC, ASNs, VCNO, 4-star Admirals, major N-codes and HQMC codes) get routine briefings on many key topics. They are vocal that the U.S. is losing ground to potential adversaries in the area of science and technology. They emphasize the criticality of S&T in national defense strategies; but NRL, the Navy’s corporate scientific laboratory, is not present at these briefings.”

If scientific advancement is to have a role in the Navy of the future, Navy leaders as well as junior officers and sailors at sea all need to talk to Navy scientists, the NRAC said.

Finally, NRAC said the NRL will have to find new ways to compete for outstanding scientific talent and to maintain a vibrant research culture and a diverse workforce.

NRAC “encourages the leadership of NRL to deliberately pursue a leadership role in enhancing diversity, equity, and inclusion of its technical workforce. Demographic data presented indicate that the distribution of scientists, engineers, and leaders is not diverse and in fact declines with seniority.”

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The Navy had refused to divulge the NRAC report. A request under the Freedom of Information Act was denied on grounds that the report is “pre-decisional.”

“This report is marked ‘do not distribute’, is pre-decisional, and is thus exempt from disclosure,” the Navy said in its September 4, 2019 denial letter.

A copy of the report had to be obtained independently.

Leaks of pre-decisional DoD material are damaging to the nation even when they are unclassified, Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper told the House Armed Services Committee last week.

“The illegal leaks are terrible, they’re happening across the government, particularly at the Defense Department,” Secretary Esper said at the July 9 hearing (at 1:03:45). “Whether it’s pre-decisional unclassified items or even classified items it hurts our national security, it jeopardizes our troops and it is just damaging to our government and our relationships with our allies and partners.”

But it is hard to see how disclosure of this pre-decisional NRAC report could possibly fit Secretary Esper’s description. If anything, it is the Navy’s refusal to disclose the report that was more likely to cause damage by making it harder to advance solutions to the problems NRAC identified.

In this case, the Navy did more than simply suppress the NRAC message — it eliminated the messenger.

Shortly after the NRAC drafted its report on the Naval Research Laboratory, Under Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly moved to terminate the 73 year old Naval Research Advisory Committee. (“Navy Torpedoes Scientific Advisory Group,” Secrecy News, April 5, 2019)

“You are hereby directed to execute all required actions to disestablish the Secretary of the Navy Advisory Panel and Naval Research Advisory Sub-Committee,” Modly wrote in a 21 February 2019 memo.

Today, as a result, the NRAC is no longer around to assess the results of its recommendations, nor will it be available to offer any further criticism in the future.

Update, 7/14/20: The Naval Research Laboratory replied to our request for comment as follows:

“The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory worked with the Naval Research Advisory Committee during their review of NRL in 2018, and has been working to implement many changes found during the NRAC’s review and since then, including a strategic plan.  Further questions about the NRAC report should be sent to the Navy news desk.”