Air Force, DOD Plan to Create First Historically Black Colleges and Universities-led Affiliated Research Center

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  • By C. Todd Lopez
  • DOD News

The Air Force and the Defense Department have announced a plan to create a 15th university affiliated research center, or UARC. The new center will be the first to be associated with an historically Black college or university and will also be the first UARC associated with the Air Force. 

"This is an opportunity to tap into universities that have an enormous amount of capability in science and technology," Frank Kendall III, the secretary of the Air Force,  said during a briefing Monday at the Pentagon. 

Historically Black Colleges and Universities graduate about 30% of African American science, technology, engineering and mathematics students, and the Defense Department and the Air Force want to tap into that talent, said Heidi Shyu, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering. 

"This nation must have a strong national STEM workforce, since the future of our national security is dependent on our ability to grow our STEM talent," she said. "We'll only accomplish this through the cultivation of a highly diverse workforce. Diversity of background and a diversity of ideas has always been the strength of this country ... We must tap into the HBCUs to grow a well-educated and well-trained workforce for the Department of Defense and this nation." 

Currently the Defense Department has 14 university affiliated research centers around the country. These DOD-supported organizations are each affiliated with a university and each has a set of core research competencies tailored to meet the long-term needs of the Defense Department. 

Existing UARCs include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies; the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory; and the University of Maryland, College Park Applied Research Laboratory for Intelligence & Security. 

The Air Force and the DOD aim for the newest UARC to focus its research efforts on "tactical autonomy." According to the Air Force Research Laboratory, this means "autonomous systems acting with delegated and bounded authority of humans in support of tactical, short-term actions associated with a longer-term strategic vision." 

That capability, Kendall said, represents a gap in what existing UARCs are currently providing to the DOD. 

"[We're] very focused on the threat of Chinese military modernization and what that means in terms of the viability of our forces," Kendall said. "Part of the future of the military is going to be autonomy. There's no doubt in my mind ... we're seeing increasing evidence of that almost in every conflict that that occurs ... it's here to stay, and we need to be at the front edge of that. This is an opportunity to tap into universities that have an enormous amount of capability in science and technology." 

To create the newest UARC, the Air Force is working with the DOD to reach out to HBCUs with qualifying research programs and asking those schools to consider competing to be lead school for the new UARC. 

According to the most recent data from the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, there are currently 11 HBCUs with a "high-research activity" or "R2" rating. Any one of those 11 schools qualifies to lead a university affiliated research center. 

As part of the program effort, the school chosen to lead the UARC would not be solely responsible for doing research at the new center. Instead, they will be responsible for building a consortium of additional HBCUs who will participate in conducting research efforts at the UARC. 

Victoria Coleman, the chief scientist of the Air Force said that while the primary goal of this effort is to provide valuable research for the Air Force and the DOD, a secondary goal is to help participating HBCUs increase their own research capacity. 

Right now, while 11 HBCUs have a Carnegie Foundation Research Classification of R2, there are no HBCUs with the R1, or "very-high research activity" classification. 

"Through this effort. We're hoping to ensure that at least one, if not more, institutions become R1," she said. 

Coleman said over the next several months the Air Force and DOD will reach out to HBCUs to let them know what the department is looking for and to explain more about the selection process. By December, it's expected there will be an announcement regarding which university was chosen to lead the new UARC. 

To fund the new UARC, the Air Force has committed a total of $12 million dollars a year over the course of five years. Shyu also said that both her office and the office of the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment will each contribute $2 million per year to the effort.