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Edison Grants promote technical proficiency in military members by encouraging research

The Air Force Research Laboratory and the Air Force Chief Scientist’s office developed the Edison Grant program to promote technical proficiency in military members by encouraging research through small, short and rigorous risk-tolerant experiments that create a cross-organizational community and generate new S&T grants and a professional support network. Sixteen Edison Grants totaling $778,000 were awarded during FY21 out of 50 applications received totaling $2.7 million. (Courtesy graphic)

The Air Force Research Laboratory and the Air Force Chief Scientist’s office developed the Edison Grant program to promote technical proficiency in military members by encouraging research through small, short and rigorous risk-tolerant experiments that create a cross-organizational community and generate new S&T grants and a professional support network. Sixteen Edison Grants totaling $778,000 were awarded during FY21 out of 50 applications received totaling $2.7 million. (Courtesy graphic)

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, OHIO (AFRL) – Objective three of the Air Force Science and Technology 2030 Strategy calls to deepen and expand the scientific and technical enterprise across the Department of the Air Force.

In fact, according to the strategy, “The Air and Space Force’s scientific and technical workforce is foundational to maintaining and accelerating technological advantage.”

With this in mind, the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Air Force Chief Scientist’s office developed the Edison Grant program to promote technical proficiency in military members by encouraging research through small, short and rigorous risk-tolerant experiments that create a cross-organizational community and generate new S&T grants and a professional support network.

Dr. Christopher Valdez is AFRL’s Edison program manager and a research scientist at Joint Base San Antonio as part of the Airman Systems Directorate of AFRL’s 711th Human Performance Wing.

“We submitted the call for research grant proposals in March,” said Valdez. “Our budget was $600,000, and we received $2.7 million in requests. From those 50 applications, we selected 16 to receive Edison Grants during our first year.”

Valdez credits Monica Poelking, AFRL’s deputy chief technology officer, for securing an additional $178,000 to allow for more funding of the grants for a new total of $778,000 in FY21.

“We accepted these grants and the money is circulating now. We met with every member one on one, both the ones that were accepted, and those that were not awarded to provide constructive feedback,” said Valdez.

Dr. Timothy Bunning, AFRL’s Chief Technology Officer, who is responsible for stewarding and cultivating the program within AFRL, said he “could not be happier with the inaugural response. Technically proficient scientists and engineers, at the core of the AFRL identity, are enabled by ‘doing.’ Enabling our blue-suiters the opportunity provided by the Edison Grant program absolutely is necessary given the fundamentally different ecosystems civilians and military Airmen and Guardians reside in,” he said. Bunning added that he “not only looks forward to the results of the initial set of projects, but foresees additional calls for proposals in the future.”

“I am excited with the team’s passion for the area and will do everything I can to enable the program,” Bunning said.
Valdez, who joined AFRL through a post-doctoral fellowship, said that throughout his career, he realized the desire for military members to be more involved in research aspects.

“It’s important that we have equity in the workplace across military and civilian personnel. We make our biggest impact when we work as a solid unit,” he said.
To reduce the barrier to entry for military members that want to pursue research, he helped to create a program called Scientific Training to Advance Research Readiness (STARR).

“The idea is that when young officers or enlisted personnel come into our base, we can offer some scientific training and get them up to speed on research in the group.”

Valdez states that when he heard about the Edison Grants, he thought the program would be an amazing next step he could take in terms of his participation with military members. Col. Mario Serna, former lead military assistant to the Air Force Chief Scientist, led the task group working on Objective Three of the Air Force S&T 2030 Strategy.

When Valdez applied to support the implementation of the 2030 Strategy, he spoke about his “passion for creating equity in a scientific workspace,” noting that, “one of the ways I could see doing that was with military members,” he explained.

“The Edison Grant Program applies funding resources to grow the technical judgment instincts of our front-line uniformed S&T Airmen and Guardians wherever they are stationed,” Serna said. “Technical instincts are built by small, failure-tolerant experiments where technical judgments are forced to rendezvous with reality. This skill set is vital for our ability to create and adapt to technological surprise as called for in the National Defense Strategy.” 

The team issued their first call for Edison Grants to military members in March.

“We addressed them as S&T-facing military members, and kept the call very vague and broad because we wanted to cast the broadest net possible and enable the widest possible group to contribute to research,” said Valdez. 

According to Valdez, the idea with Edison Grants is to allow a platform for military members to lead small, yet rigorous research projects.

“We wanted to give them an opportunity to submit a proposal of up to $75,000 for 12 months of research. It could be a project that’s part of their branch, a basic research project, or maybe they’re involved in a technical way on a project or they may have their own idea and want to extend it out. Sometimes those ideas are often hard to do because of core budgets or other requirements that have to be met. We wanted to kick start a risk-tolerant environment for military members to pursue research.”

Valdez said the goal of the Edison Grant program is to provide military members with a foundation – a platform, to execute scientific research, ask scientific questions, and develop cross-organization ideas.

“We’re a culture of doing science at the bench-level, leading by example, and further developing the technical skillsets of our military members. That’s what we want to enforce with the Edison Grants,” he said.

The ultimate goal of this initiative is to create a cross-cultural community among members of the military.

“We want to have a culture with the Edison Fellows where they can lean on each other for professional network support, but then also work with each other on ideas where we can have some cross-organizational proposals submitted for the next cycle as well,” he said.

Maybe that military member may transfer to a new role, but they have now stood something up that another military member can take over and that can grow within their branch or division, Valdez said. “At the end of the effort, our goal is to have all of these research projects published, as well as peer-reviewed publications, which would be a plus for the Air Force overall.”

Valdez says his team expects the call for FY22 Edison Grant proposals to come during fall 2021. For more information about the program, contact Valdez at edisongrants@us.af.mil.