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Nominee for New Defense R&D Role Shares Priorities at Senate Hearing

JAN 26, 2024
NASA engineer Aprille Ericsson pledged to expand outreach to innovative small businesses and prioritize STEM diversity initiatives if confirmed.
Mitch Ambrose headshot
Director of Science Policy News American Institute of Physics
Aprille Ericsson nomination hearing Jan 23 2024 screengrab.png

Aprille Ericsson at her nomination hearing on Jan. 23.

(Senate Armed Services Committee)

The Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing on Tuesday to review the nomination of NASA engineer Aprille Ericsson to be the first assistant secretary of defense for science and technology, one of three new roles that will support the Department of Defense’s chief technology officer.

Committee Chair Jack Reed (D-RI) praised her as “eminently qualified” for the role and no senators voiced concerns about her nomination. Ericsson holds a doctorate in mechanical engineering from Howard University and has worked at NASA for three decades, most recently as a lead business strategist at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

President Joe Biden picked Ericsson last September to fill the role, which DOD created in a reorganization this past summer that replaced three deputy CTO positions with equivalent assistant secretary positions that now require Senate confirmation. Biden so far has not announced nominees for the other two roles.

The assistant secretary for science and technology will oversee the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program as well as policy affecting the defense STEM workforce, labs, and test infrastructure. The role will also focus on four of the 14 technology areas deemed critical by DOD: quantum science, advanced materials, biotechnology, and next-generation wireless networks. DOD considers these to be “seed areas of emerging opportunity,” whereas the rest of the areas have more immediate applicability.

One of the other new assistant secretary roles focuses on the remaining 10 technology areas. These include three areas regarded as “defense-specific” by DOD: directed energy, hypersonics, and integrated sensing. The rest cover technologies with broader applications, such as microelectronics, artificial intelligence, and renewable energy generation.

Senators probed Ericsson’s views on some of the critical technology areas in their questioning. For instance, Sen. Angus King (I-ME) said the U.S. has “a lot of catch-up to do” in hypersonics and directed energy and asked Ericsson if she agrees they should be a “hair-on-fire, urgent priority.” She replied affirmatively and expressed interest in expanding collaboration between NASA and DOD, pointing to the relevance of NASA’s work on the X-59 supersonic plane.

King and three other senators also encouraged Ericsson to make it easier for small businesses to participate in defense innovation.

“I’ve talked to a number of small businesses in the tech sector that have simply given up doing business with the Department of Defense, too much bureaucracy, too much forms, too much time,” King said. “I would urge you to set up some kind of listening program to find out where the bottlenecks are.”

Ericsson pledged to hold “roadshows” to collect ideas for improvement. She also noted she has long been involved with NASA’s version of the SBIR program and would bring lessons learned from that experience to DOD.

Asked by Reed about ways to grow the STEM workforce, Ericsson pointed to the importance of partnering with Historically Black Colleges and Universities, stating that they “provide us with 25% of the African Americans in the STEM disciplines.”

Committee Ranking Member Roger Wicker (R-MS) urged her to broaden the geographic diversity of the institutions that conduct defense research. “The Pentagon relies on American universities for early-stage research and development, but today, it works primarily with major universities in just a few states, and I hope Dr. Ericsson will advocate for the Department of Defense taking advantage of the talent, capabilities, and expertise found at research institutions from coast to coast, not just a select few,” he said.

Ericsson elaborated on her priorities and views in responses to written questions from committee members submitted in advance of the hearing. For instance, asked if DOD and the U.S. as a whole are facing a “crisis” in STEM education, she agreed. She added that although she believes deficiencies in STEM education have not yet affected DOD’s ability to execute its mission, there are some early warning signs.

“I understand there are several STEM areas for which the Department is having trouble meeting its need and I would anticipate that as the current workforce retires, we will start to see an impact in the department’s ability to maintain its technological advantage over its adversaries,” she wrote.

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