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Pentagon fears technology edge may be eroding

Defense officials cite shortage of scientists

By Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / June 13, 2009
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WASHINGTON - The Pentagon fears a severe shortage of scientists and engineers at government laboratories could erode the military's technological edge in developing weapons and other projects in coming years, spawning a hiring boom at military research laboratories and an expansion of scholarships, advertising campaigns, and other ways to recruit a new generation of researchers.

An internal study concluded that the Air Force, the military's most technology-reliant branch, could be especially hit hard by the widening gap between the number of qualified college graduates in science, engineering, and math and the growing national demand for such skills, according to defense officials.

The Navy, too, is warning its technological superiority over potential adversaries could be diminished unless a new cadre of scientists and engineers can be persuaded to work on possible breakthroughs pursued by government labs, but not in the private sector.

"Many of today's most important military technologies can be traced back to the government and quasi-government laboratories," according to a recent study by the Center for Technology and Security Policy at the National Defense University. "Among these are radar, nuclear weapons, [and] the Global Positioning System. However, the future viability of the model is in doubt."

The Air Force Materiel Command, which runs research centers across the country - including Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford - is trying to fill more than 5,000 positions by October 2011, many of them in chemistry, physics, and electrical, aeronautical, and environmental engineering.

The jobs include researching cleaner fuels, laser-guided weapons, or unmanned aerial vehicles and finding ways to defend against computer attacks. In the future, "we hope to hire several times that number," said JoAnne Rumple, a spokeswoman at the command.

"We don't have enough people going into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics," added Werner Dahm, the chief scientist of the Air Force, adding that "the best and the brightest get hired away by industry."

The gap between supply and demand in science and engineering skills is a nationwide problem that has been brewing for years. A study last year by the National Science Foundation found that the number of graduates with science and engineering degrees - at the bachelor's level or higher - increased by an average rate of 1.5 percent a year from 1980 to 2005. But the average employment growth for such jobs each year over the same period was 4.2 percent.

The phenomenon is especially acute at the Department of Defense and other national security agencies, where researchers undertake basic science experiments, often without specific applications for commercially-viable products in mind - a key difference from the private sector. The military labs also focus on technologies that need to work on the battlefield and be far more rugged than commercial products.

"The research is rather unique," said Sujata S. Millick, acting director of research at the Office of Naval Research. "We could not develop technological superiority without people."

One reason for the personnel shortage, officials say, is that a growing percentage of US science and engineering graduates are foreign citizens not eligible for the security clearances required for many of the jobs. Government statistics show that 60 percent of all doctoral candidates in the sciences are now foreign-born.

"If the requirement is you have to be a US citizen, then you have a large pool that simply isn't eligible," said Mark Regets, a senior analyst at the National Science Foundation who tracks the science and engineering workforce.

He noted that time on a student visa does not count toward the five years an immigrant must live in the United States before being eligible for citizenship - and by that five-year mark, scientists and engineers could be well into their civilian careers.

There are also other factors. For one, the federal workforce is older than the national average and so a larger share is reaching retirement - at some facilities as much as 5 percent a year, according to government estimates.

The average age of the 3,000 workers at the Air Force Research Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio - which researches space vehicles, propulsion technologies, and new aerospace materials - is 50, according to lab officials. A full 40 percent are slated to retire over the next two decades.

The lab is facing an "unprecedented loss of numbers, experience, and expertise," said Dahm.

The "graying" of the workforce also affects research labs in the Army and Navy, as well as the three dozen federally-funded research centers, including MIT Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington and MITRE Corporation in Bedford.

Pentagon studies on the shortage have also cited the attraction of higher-paying jobs in the private sector, where stock options and profit sharing can dramatically boost salaries; restrictive regulations that prevent government research centers from advertising for new talent; and an ideological resistance at many academic institutions to weapons work.

In response, the Pentagon is trying a variety of new initiatives this year.

The office responsible for defense research has requested additional funding to increase five-fold - to 550 - the number of scholarships available for science and engineering students in exchange for government service, said Cheryl Irwin, a department spokeswoman.

The Air Force Research Laboratory recently cosponsored a high school science competition to reach young people. The Air Force has also instituted its own version of NASA's popular "space camp" to reach high school students, recently received approval to bypass the lengthy government employment process for some science and engineering hires, and has requested a waiver so that it can advertise to compete with high-tech companies for the best talent.

The Air Force's Dahm, who is on leave from the engineering department at the University of Michigan, said the new ad campaign would hopefully overcome many misconceptions, including that government labs are "slow" and "intellectually muted."

Rather, he pointed out that the Air Force has led the way in a variety of revolutionary technologies and is now working on some of the most cutting-edge projects anywhere in the world.

Joel Schindall, a professor of electrical engineering at MIT and codirector of the school's Engineering Leadership Program, said he will be urging students to take a second look at defense lab jobs.

"They do some really interesting work," he said. "They do a lot of very far-sighted research aimed at alternative fuels and a lot of things that have much broader implications than fighting a war."

But William A. Wulf, former president of the National Academy of Engineering who now teaches at the University of Virginia, said the Pentagon faces real challenges in drawing the talent necessary, noting that it is being forced to contract out many projects that used to be government-run.

"It is a real problem and you are already seeing the implications of it," Wulf said. "If you can't hire the qualified people, you are not going to develop the technology you need."

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com.