FYI: Science Policy News

House and Senate Bringing Differing R&D Policies to Defense Bill Conference

SEP 22, 2017
The Senate passed its version of the annual National Defense Authorization Act on Sept. 18, sending the bill to conference committee. House and Senate conferees now must come to an agreement on a vast library of provisions, including many concerning R&D policy.
Will Thomas
Spencer R. Weart Director of Research in History, Policy, and Culture

AFRL Sodium Guidestar

The Sodium Guidestar is a device used by the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Directed Energy Directorate to assist with real-time, high-fidelity tracking and imaging of satellites too faint for conventional adaptive optical imaging systems. The Air Force’s space-related capabilities are receiving significant attention in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act due to the House proposal to create an independent Space Corps service branch.

(Image credit – U.S. Air Force)

On Sept. 18, the Senate passed its version of the fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Congress’ annual defense policy bill, on a vote of 89 to 8. The House already passed its own version on a vote of 344 to 81 on July 14, and the bills will now head to conference committee.

There is not a great deal of overlap between each chamber’s provisions relating to R&D and other science policy matters. Most provisions pertaining to policy for Defense Department laboratories is contained in the Senate bill. The House bill calls for a focused effort to halve the backlog in deferred maintenance at National Nuclear Security Administration labs and facilities. Other topics on the table include DOD’s innovation strategy, directed energy weapons, space-based missile defense, the creation of an independent Space Corps, materials R&D, and STEM education.

The task confronting the conferees is to determine which provisions from each bill will make the final cut, and to resolve any contradictions not only between the bills but also the respective reports that accompany them.

DOD laboratories

The provisions in the Senate bill bearing on policy for DOD laboratories would mainly clarify and strengthen the labs’ special administrative authorities to hire personnel and expend funds. Although these authorities have expanded in recent years, recent hearings and a Defense Science Board report have indicated that lab administrators have been inhibited from fully using them.

One of the provisions would officially define “research and development activities” in statute as “(I) creative work undertaken on a systematic basis in order to increase the stock of knowledge, including the knowledge of man, culture, and society; and (II) the use of the stock of knowledge described [above] to devise new applications…”

The report accompanying the Senate bill explains that the provision aims to unburden contracts for R&D activities from the reporting and oversight requirements imposed on contracts for other types of services. It notes that R&D contracts should be more focused on the outcomes anticipated than the specific tasks to be performed. They should also accommodate “adjustment and evolution” as well as different types of deliverables ranging from reports to prototypes.

Another Senate provision would allow DOD to establish “multi-institution task order contracts, consortia, cooperative agreements, or other arrangements to facilitate expedited access to university technical expertise, including faculty, staff, and students,in order to advance a variety of R&D areas. The report explains that the new arrangements would supplement existing mechanisms for supporting university-based basic research.

Another Senate provision would expand DOD’s authority to competitively select via a peer review process not only “basic research” projects but “research and development” projects more broadly, which, the report clarifies, would encompass all DOD Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation (RDT&E) activities. The report notes that the objective is to expedite funding for certain projects, particularly those conducted by small businesses.

Still another Senate provision would grant the under secretary of defense for research and engineering (USD(R&E)) — a position established by last year’s NDAA and due to be implemented in early 2018 — broad authority to “request a time-limited review and if necessary require coordination on and modification of proposed directives, rules, regulations, and other policies that in the Under Secretary’s view would adversely affect the ability of the innovation, research, and engineering enterprise of the Department of Defense to effectively and efficiently execute its missions...”

The Senate would also further solidify in statute the labs’ much-praised “Section 219” discretionary spending authority. The House report directs DOD to provide an explanation for why laboratories have not been able to take advantage of a provision in the fiscal year 2014 NDAA that allows labs to accumulate Section 219 funds from year to year.

A successful amendment sponsored by Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) to the House bill would direct DOD to institute a pilot program that would facilitate the licensure, transfer, and commercialization of “innovative technologies” among DOD laboratories, Energy Department national laboratories, and private entities.

The House and Senate bills both propose to expand the list of DOD’s “science and technology reinvention laboratories,” allowing the added institutions’ administrators to take advantage of the special authorities accorded to lab directors. The Senate would add the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Naval Facilities Engineering and Expeditionary Warfare Center, and individual directorates within the Air Force Research Laboratory. The House would add the Naval Medical Research Center and the Joint Warfighting Analysis Center.

NNSA laboratories and facilities

The House bill directs NNSA to create a Facilities and Infrastructure Recapitalization and Repair program to address the agency’s multi-billion-dollar backlog in deferred maintenance and repair. The program would give NNSA the authority to circumvent certain administrative hurdles in a push to halve the agency’s backlog within five years. NNSA representatives testified at a hearing last year that a previous infrastructure recapitalization program , which concluded in 2013, had been highly effective.

To address the backlog, both the House and Senate bills recommend allocating NNSA an additional $150 million in fiscal year 2018 for repair, maintenance, and recapitalization. Although House appropriators have allocated these additional funds in their spending bill for DOE, Senate appropriators have not done so in theirs.

The House bill also directs NNSA to contract with a federally funded research and development center not affiliated with DOE to conduct an “assessment of the benefits, costs, challenges, risks, efficiency, and effectiveness” of NNSA’s strategy for management and operating contracts for national security laboratories.

Third Offset Strategy

The Senate bill expresses strong support this year for the Third Offset Strategy , DOD’s marquee initiative to develop game-changing technologies and to rapidly transition them into operational use. In addition to authorizing $200 million for directed energy weapons as a “technology offset,” the bill specifically authorizes $60 million in additional funding distributed across several Army and Air Force RDT&E accounts for R&D capabilities “modernization” and Third Offset investments.

The Senate bill also extends special recruiting and pay authorities for DOD laboratories to the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) and Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx), two organizations central to the Third Offset Strategy. The Senate report lauds DIUx and directs DOD “to consider expanding the mission of the Unit to include new physical locations at which DIUx may post reservists … with a specific emphasis on evaluating locations that would allow a close collaboration with Department of Defense laboratories.”

The Senate bill contains a number of provisions furthering the Third Offset Strategy goal of making acquisitions more “agile,” and suggests that DOD’s acquisition enterprise take cues from SCO’s “culture of both competition and failing without fear of punishment.”

The House bill is less intensely concerned with DOD’s Third Offset goals, and would direct DOD to submit a report on DIUx progress, measured according to a series of “metrics of success.” Both the Senate and House reports authorize full funding for DIUx, while House appropriators have proposed providing only half the amount requested through DOD’s RDT&E budget.

Space Corps

One of the most ambitious and contentious provisions in the House bill is a proposal to create a new Space Corps service branch within the Department of the Air Force, analogous to the position of the Marine Corps in the Navy Department.

The Space Corps would be principally concerned with enabling and conducting operations in space in order to protect U.S. interests there; deterring aggression “in, from, and through space”; and contributing to U.S. war-fighting capabilities. The corps would not, though, subsume any elements of DOD’s National Reconnaissance Office or its National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. R&D for the Space Corps would be conducted through the Air Force Department. The deadline for its creation would be Jan. 1, 2019.

The Space Corps idea has bipartisan support on the House Armed Services Committee. However, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has objected, arguing , “I do not wish to add a separate service that would likely present a narrower and even parochial approach to space operations vice an integrated one we’re constructing under our current approach.” The White House’s statement of policy on the House NDAA bill called the proposal “premature at this time.”

Originally, the Senate NDAA bill contained no mention of the Space Corps, but a successful amendment sponsored by Sens. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Tom Cotton (R-AR) would explicitly prohibit DOD from creating an independent command to oversee space operations. The conferees will have to come to a clear settlement on this issue.

Other provisions

Directed energy weapons. Last year’s NDAA instructed DOD to appoint a senior official in charge of directed energy weapons, to be supported by what the act renamed the Joint Directed Energy Transition Office. This year, the Senate bill directs DOD to create a new program under the USD(R&E) for demonstrating and prototyping directed energy weapons. The military departments, agencies, and commands would apply to the program for funding to enter into contracts or other agreements for the “fielding or commercialization of technologies.” The bill also authorizes $200 million in special funding for this program through the previously zeroed out “Defense Technology Offset” line item. Meanwhile, the House report contains several provisions supporting directed energy weapons, including one encouraging DOD to increase its efforts in non-lethal directed energy technologies.

Materials R&D. Congress continues its encouragement of DOD-led materials science this year, particularly through the Army Research Laboratory (ARL). In a passage on “strategic materials,” the Senate report highlights the lab’s work in materials by design, additive manufacturing, and energy coupling to materials. The House report expresses support for additive manufacturing and the use of computer simulation and modeling to advance materials development and characterization. It also expresses enthusiasm for R&D in energetic materials, such as explosives and propellants, and directs the Navy to develop a roadmap to pursue a “renaissance” in the area, and DOD as a whole to develop a roadmap for weapons and munitions science and technology, including for new propellants and “explosive combinations,” to counter emerging threats.

Army Open Campus initiative. The Senate report expresses approval for ARL’s Open Campus Initiative, which provides facilities where DOD, academic, and industry researchers can collaborate, as a mechanism for advancing materials research. The House report goes further, encouraging the Army “to explore opportunities to provide stipends for temporary sabbaticals and to allow academic experts to conduct research at ARL and to consider funding long-term joint assignments between academia and government.” It also suggests the initiative “might be a useful model for other military service laboratories to examine to improve their collaboration as well as attract new researchers and foster new interdisciplinary teams.”

STEM education. The Senate report praises a program to improve STEM education programs for children of members of the military, authorizing an additional $5 million for it through the National Defense Education Program. It also authorizes an additional $20 million within the National Defense Education Program for DOD’s Manufacturing Engineering Education Program. The House report expresses support for DOD promotion of STEM education, and a successful amendment sponsored by Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-IA) inserted a provision that would direct DOD to develop an action plan for identifying requirements for and the availability of personnel in STEM, maintenance, and manufacturing fields. Between report language and successful amendments, the Senate and House are both recommending funding support for Historically Black Colleges and Universities at about $14 million above the administration’s request.

Open data. During floor action, the Senate voted to include the “Open, Public, Electronic, and Necessary Government Data Act” as an amendment to its bill. The measure would require federal agencies by law to make data “controlled, collected, or created” by them available through, to develop data inventories, and to establish standardized digital formats.

Future nuclear weapons. The House version contains a provision requiring NNSA to “carry out a new and comprehensive design competition for a nuclear warhead that could be employed on ballistic missiles of the United States by 2030.” The competition, which has attracted some controversy in the scientific community, would result in the selection of a warhead that will best fulfill the nation’s future deterrence requirements.

The Senate bill does not include the design competition. It does however include a provision directing DOD to certify that its current Nuclear Posture Review will address a variety of concerns. These include U.S. nuclear capability to provide deterrence now and in the future; nuclear capability to fight in a regional nuclear conflict; and the capability of forward-deployed members of the military to operate in a nuclear environment. The bill also stipulates that the review should consider any “weapons, equipment, and training not currently part of the U.S. nuclear posture that would fill any gaps in those capabilities.”

Space-based missile defense. Both the House and Senate bills contain provisions directing DOD to create a space-based sensor architecture suitable for ballistic missile defense. The House bill would further direct DOD to formulate a plan to develop a space-based ballistic missile intercept layer. Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL), a physicist, offered a failed amendment to the recent House spending package that would prevent any funding of a space-based interceptor system, arguing that studies, including ones undertaken by the American Physical Society and National Academies, have found such systems to be infeasible.

Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility. The Senate and House bills both direct NNSA to continue construction of the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility in South Carolina, unless the Energy Secretary can certify that certain conditions have been met. The facility is intended to convert plutonium from dismantled nuclear warheads into usable fuel for nuclear reactors. However, the Trump administration, like the Obama administration before it, opposes completion of the facility primarily because of its cost.

Congressionally directed medical research. DOD currently supports a portfolio of medical research, which Senate Armed Services Committee Chair John McCain (R-AZ) has criticized as irrelevant to military needs. The Senate bill contains provisions on the program, including one that would restrict support to research that is demonstrably relevant to the military. Senators could not reach agreement to bring an amendment sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) nullifying those provisions to a vote. McCain has supported similar restrictions in previous years, but they have never survived into the final NDAA.

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