Howard University selected to lead 15th University Affiliated Research Center

  • Published
  • By Aleah M. Castrejon
  • Air Force Research Laboratory Public Affairs

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFRL) – The Department of Defense  announced its selection for a science research partnership Jan. 23, 2023. Howard University, Washington, D.C., is the first Historically Black College or University, or HBCU, to lead a University Affiliated Research Center, or UARC.  

In June 2022, the U.S. Air Force and Defense Department announced its plan for a 15th UARC to focus on tactical autonomy. By September 2022, the Broad Agency Announcement, or BAA, went out, and the Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, in coordination with the Department of the Air Force, began seeking proposals.  

The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022 laid out measures to assess and capitalize on the science and engineering capacity of HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions in pursuit of very high research activity status. 

"We are excited to learn from the great minds at Howard University and see what they'll bring to the Department of the Air Force," said Chief Scientist of the Air Force Dr. Victoria Coleman, in the Jan. 23, 2023, announcement. "Their motto is 'Excellence in Truth and Service' and I know we will see that excellence in their scientific research and development work."    

According to the announcement, the Department of the Air Force, or DAF, and AFRL, are partnering with Howard University to:  

  • Establish and maintain essential research and development capabilities for the DAF to deliver operationally relevant autonomy.  

  • Advance the field of autonomy by focusing on the Secretary of the Air Force's operational imperatives.  

  • Generate robust research and development efforts with HBCUs that are expected to build institutional research capacity to a research classification of "very-high-research activity" in the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education.  

  • Grow and diversify the available pool of scientists and engineers to support the department and establish a source of organic technical excellence.   

  • Seed a unique science, research and development ecosystem of small and large businesses, academia and the Department of Defense.  

UARC process  

Since Howard University’s selection in January, AFRL staff have been working with the university to choose projects, which Howard will lead with a consortium of HBCUs. The HBCUs include Jackson State University, Mississippi; Tuskegee University, Alabama; Hampton University, Virginia; Bowie State University, Maryland; Norfolk State University, Virginia; Delaware State University; Florida Memorial University; and Tougaloo College, Mississippi.  

“Our process is that we are working with the autonomy, artificial intelligence and machine learning community within AFRL,” said Seana McNeal, deputy UARC program manager.  

The research topics predominantly come from AFRL, she added, but opportunities exist to receive topics from other agencies, as well.  

“We want to make sure we are tapped into those who are doing research for the Department of the Air Force — understand what's needed — and what needs to transition to the warfighter,” McNeal said.  

She explained that Dr. Steven Rogers, AFRL autonomy lead, and Dr. Juan Vasquez, technical lead for the UARC and product development director for Autonomy Capability Team 3, or ACT3, with AFRL, reached out to the community for topics.  

“We will present [the topics] to … the lead, Howard University,” McNeal said. “They are going to have a process where they show all the topics to those in the consortium. Those members will select a topic, submit proposals and we will work with the technical points of contact to make a selection and determine who moves forward to perform that particular research.”  

And while there is a learning process, Dr. Bruce A. Jones, professor and vice president for research, Office of Research with Howard University, said the process has been both thrilling and educational.  

“We do recognize at Howard University that this is a historic event in so many ways, as far as being the first UARC from the Air Force, and the first UARC conferred to an [HBCU],” Jones added. “But also, to be able to share in this opportunity with our partner HBCUs, and bring this not only to Howard, but to the HBCU community.” 

However, communication is key, and Jones said the daily communication has been wonderful. 

“Each time we've met, we've met with more representatives of the Air Force,” he said. “Now that we have secured the contract, [we] are looking to move from one task order to another.” 

D. Tim Williams, DAF UARC program manager, said the initial operating capability is a process. Howard, as well as the consortium members, are learning the capabilities of each of the universities, which will take some time.  This effort of group dynamics and psychological development —forming, storming, norming and preforming — to work on a project of this magnitude will not occur overnight.  Building trust is critical to that success.  

“They're very confident in the teams that the consortium members are providing,” Williams said.   

Jones said their initial focus is the management task order.  

“The management task order centers on finalizing the organizational chart and the staffing of the UARC,” Jones said. “Other tasks revolve around our UARC operational infrastructure with respect to finance, human resources, information technology, equipment and facilities. The task order includes a focus on the establishment of regular and consistent communications between Howard and key personnel in the Air Force, as well-organized strategies for including operations staff, academic staff, and researchers in orientation sessions about the function, role and operations of the UARC.” 

A process will be followed to ensure continuous evaluation and communication throughout this entire process, Williams said.  

The Department of the Air Force will have a board of advisers that includes senior leaders from the department of the Air Force and Department of Defense, Williams said, which will be led by the chief scientist of the Air Force, board of adviser meetings will include the university principal investigator and the AFRL technical point of contact together to perform joint presentations.  

This continuous evaluation will help to ensure the effort adheres to the guidance received from the national defense and Air Force science and technology strategies, Williams added.  

The  seven operational imperatives that the Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall laid out are being applied “to ensure that we stay within the framework that's been designed for us, and AFRL is going to be a critical component to ensuring that happens,” Williams said.  

Key events  

AFRL and Howard University hosted a pre-kickoff meeting Feb. 3, 2023, which was used to describe expectation management from the DAF and Department of Defense.  

“These are things that we're thinking at the macro level, and it’s an opportunity for Howard University to talk to us about some of the challenges they anticipate facing over the foreseeable future,” Williams said.  

Some challenges are anticipated, Williams said, such as the historical inequities, as it relates to funding — specifically research and development within the university system at HBCUs.  

“The one big thing or big things that come to mind for me — that we have to start the planning on immediately — … [are] the security requirements,” Williams said.  

Because applied research dips into the classified realm at various security clearance levels, Williams said, two things must occur. First, they need a secure space, and the required personnel security clearances.  

“But broadly, we just want to understand what some of those challenges are … and help Howard determine what the best course of action is for the immediate future and begin planning for those long-lead-time requirements now,” Williams said.  

Key topics 

Possibly, the most important aspect is the historic nature, Jones said. 

“We recognize the responsibility to ensure the success of the institution in this endeavor, which ensures the success of our faculty and our students,” he added. “Secondly, the contributions we will make to the strategic priorities of the Air Force and the Department of Defense is very important to us. And, thirdly, the application of these technologies to civilian life, as our students graduate from this program and move successfully into any number of career-related STEM fields.” 

Those three tactical Autonomy lines of effort are the focus: Trust in mission autonomy, collaboration between platforms and human machine teaming.  

“Out of the lab and into the hands of the warfighter,” Williams said, quoting Coleman.  

Among the expectations from the BAA, Coleman wants to ensure this UARC is postured to transition promising capabilities into the hands of the warfighter, Williams added.  

Additionally, science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, education and outreach is a huge component, Williams said, which includes kindergarten through 12th grade and post-secondary education.   

The STEM aspect is important, McNeal added, to expand the workforce in tactical autonomy and to remain in the lead.  

“In order for us to remain leaders in defense, we need to have the best and the brightest, whether they're working directly for the government or for within our industrial base,” McNeal added.   

In addition, Williams said they are looking to focus on three areas of effort.  

No. 1, transitioning capabilities into the hands of the warfighter: This effort will look to change the idea of the stereotypes about joining or serving the military.  

“We want to ensure that we have the opportunity to expose — through research, outreach, and education opportunities — that the Department of the Air Force is more than just trigger pullers and pilots,” Williams said.  

No. 2, in addition to the world-class research, this will be an opportunity to share other aspects of the DAF, Williams said. This effort will create engagement opportunities with underrepresented and underserved populations to STEM.  

“We will use metrics to measure their effectiveness, as well as our return on investment for STEM education and outreach,” he added. “That comes back to two benefits to the Air Force and to DOD, writ large.”  

No. 3, the movement of one of the R2 institutions to an R1 category.  

“One of the efforts in the five-year period is that we have one of these R2 universities that move from ‘high research’ into the ‘very-high research’ category,” Williams added.  

Vasquez agreed and said the important areas are the STEM and technical achievement aspects.   

“For the technical achievement, the most significant thing is that we are connecting the university researchers directly to DOD scientists and engineers,” Vasquez said.  

McNeal added that Howard University has already gone through a level of scrutiny through the selection process.    

“It’s going to be their job; Howard University's, as well as the consortium members current and future, to step up and prove themselves just like any other contractor,” McNeal added. “I'm really excited to see what they accomplish.”  

Looking to the future, Jones said he hopes this UARC will continue to serve as a major contributor to knowledge on tactical autonomy, and its application to the strategic mission of the U.S. Air Force.   

“What we learn from research conducted under the auspices of the UARC will also contribute to learning about and improved usage of artificial intelligence in the daily lives of the general public,” Jones said. “Lastly, we know that there is a dearth of people of color in the fields of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Our work at Howard will mitigate this persistent dilemma. In this respect, we will continue our preeminence in the development and graduation of STEM scholars and researchers who are truly poised to change the world.” 

About AFRL
The Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, is the primary scientific research and development center for the Department of the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 11,500 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit