Making STEM a Solid Pillar of National Security

Laser Weapon System aboard the USS Ponce, an example of advanced military technology developed by the Office of Naval Research.

Laser Weapon System aboard the USS Ponce, an example of advanced military technology developed by the Office of Naval Research.

Security through technology

Cutting-edge technical sophistication in warfighting tools and systems, or “modernization,” is a pillar of military capability. It requires robust defense science and technology (S&T) capacities, anchored by the technical know-how and operational savvy of scientists and engineers at the Department of Defense (DoD). This workforce, though a vital asset in defense strategies, is under stress from inside and outside the Pentagon.

It starts with smarts

Taken as a whole, force structure, readiness, sustainability, and modernization define a nation’s level of military capability. As an ingredient of modernization, S&T capabilities depend as much on brains as on equipment. Without comprehensive grasp of what is currently or soon-to-be possible in S&T, we run the risk of unpleasant surprises in encounters with people who wish us harm, either at home or in foreign theaters.

About 110,000 strong, the military science and engineering (S&E) workforce performs uniquely vital work maintaining and extending the technological underpinnings of the national security apparatus. That means scientists and engineers working in uniform or as civilians on DoD research, development, testing, evaluation, and acquisition of weapons and all the underlying technologies required for them to function.

An electrical engineer tests out experimental laser weaponry technology.

An electrical engineer tests out experimental laser weaponry technology.

S&E workforce up against it

This workforce, though, is under stress on various fronts. From impending retirements to diversity challenges to prestige deficits inside the military to capture by contractor, the military S&E workforce is operating against some brisk headwinds.

STEM education big for DoD

Understanding these issues, DoD has become widely active in STEM education activities and outreach. Looking to leverage students’ interest in STEM fields into possible pursuit of defense-related study and work, they can make a strong case. Protecting your country with the force of your brain will hold a lot of appeal for many students making choices about study and career paths.

Where the S&E’s are

The S&E workforce is busy driving innovations in military S&T at various locations. The Army, Navy, and Air Force all operate labs where mostly civilian scientists and engineers conduct research on areas of potential interest to their respective service branches. In sixteen other, more-specialized labs, scientists and engineers work on topics from missile research to behavioral sciences to communications and electronics systems.

The Office of Naval Research has been in operation for 70 years, working on science and technology projects to support the country's naval defense operations.

The Office of Naval Research has been in operation for 70 years, working on science and technology projects to support the country's naval defense operations.

Almost two-thirds of the military S&E workforce is made up of engineers. About three-quarters are civilians, and five of the top six job areas for civilians are engineering fields:

  • Electronics engineering
  • Mechanical engineering
  • General engineering
  • Computer engineering
  • Aerospace engineering

Litany of challenges

The age distribution of people in the workforce points to an impending challenge: replenishing the ranks after retirements crest in the next five to ten years. Projections for 2020 show a large cohort moving past 60 years of age, after which military retirements tend to happen quickly.

Moreover, a hiring freeze in the 1990’s has produced a barbell-shaped age distribution in the ranks, with larger numbers of recently hired, younger workers but few in the middle. As a result, institutional memory and leadership skills might be hard to replace when widespread retirements start to hit.

Getting younger could help

Hiring is hard, but retirements also offer a chance to address another workforce issue: being up on current trends in the broader S&T industry. The distribution of occupations in the current military S&E workforce looks like the national S&T workforce of 1960, not 2016.

Overweight engineering and underweight math and information technology, this configuration of professional skills can be problematic. It has played a part, according to the GAO, in problems with large, new weapons systems as well as troubled implementations of information technology projects at the Pentagon. Indeed, one study found that 55 percent of large software projects are terminated prior to completion.

Hiring a large number of scientists and engineers in different areas and early in their careers could well enable the Pentagon to make an accelerated leap forward in the composition and capabilities of the S&E workforce.

No way up?

Once hired, though, even scientists and engineers up to speed on current tech could well face some of the same professional frustrations that current workers do.

For uniformed scientists and engineers, the technical career path endows its followers with less prestige than people following more operational or managerial paths. On a scale of O-1 to O-10, S&E officers peak out at O-5, the Lieutenant Colonel/Commander level. At the O-6 Colonel/Captain level and above, S&E officers become disproportionately scarce.

Outsourcing to a fault

For civilian scientists and engineers, the long-term buildup in use of contractors to carry out defense S&T work has meant that in-house defense scientists and engineers can be relegated to non-technical functions, like project management or mere implementers of received goods. The “action” takes place outside DoD, on the contractor side.

This state of things has various pernicious results:

  • depressed morale in the workforce
  • lack of internal expertise in defense-critical systems
  • diffused accountability for problems in building, using, and paying for systems
  • confusion over what is appropriately public versus private functions in the overall conduct of national defense

This is not even to mention the tendency of contractors to pursue what economists call “rent-seeking” behaviors and what others might call profiteering.

Military S&T crosses over

A vibrant, engaged military S&E workforce has been an enormous asset not only to the military but also to the country at large. Its efforts have strengthened national defense, to be sure, as well as enriched many areas of the economy and improved our daily lives.

It is easy to infer the military origins of technologies like GPS, jet airplane travel, wristwatches, and even duct tape. But microwave ovens, digital cameras, and the EpiPen are also examples of technologies that have roots in military applications.

And, of course, the Internet itself emerged from one of the most fertile sources of technological innovation in the world, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.

A robo-fly works as a miniature drone with video transmission and recording capabilities, one of the many DARPA creations that seem to come from the pages of science fiction.

A robo-fly works as a miniature drone with video transmission and recording capabilities, one of the many DARPA creations that seem to come from the pages of science fiction.

Dating to a 1962 order to connect Pentagon computers, Strategic Air Command, and bombproof command centers buried deep underground in the Mountain West, the ARPANET originally served just military purposes. It soon migrated to colleges and universities, though, where it was further refined and extended to become the Internet without which we could not now imagine living.

DoD does outreach

Naval STEM Expo attendees will receive a copy of our Start Engineering, our career guide for middle and high school students.

Naval STEM Expo attendees will receive a copy of our Start Engineering, our career guide for middle and high school students.

To tell the story of exciting opportunity and meaningful enterprise that a military S&E path offers, defense agencies have become active in STEM education and outreach.

One of our favorite STEM education events takes place this Sunday, May 15, the Naval STEM Expo, a free event at National Harbor in Washington, DC, where kids will learn how STEM education and national defense intersect. Attendees are going to receive a free copy of our middle and high school career guide, Start Engineering.

Sponsored by the Office of Naval Research and the Navy League of the United States, the Naval STEM Expo gives students a chance to get their hands on fun, real-world technologies related to defense needs and learn how STEM education can be a pathway to working on advanced, exciting innovations in science and engineering.

“Invent tomorrow”

At last year’s event, Rear Admiral Mat Winter, the chief of naval research, told students in attendance that they could “invent tomorrow,” working on military S&T projects.

This year, Tony Mulligan will headline the event, talking about EMILY, a high-powered, remote-controlled water rescue device he invented that is far faster and more durable than any human lifeguard. In addition, some 15 military S&T groups and numerous private organization will be on hand to show kids all kinds of other approaches to making S&T a vital part of national security efforts.

Did we mention it’s free?

With over 1,200 attendees expected, the Naval STEM Expo is a high-profile, high-energy venue for kids to learn what the opportunities and rewards of military S&T work can be. We’re excited to be participating and look forward to seeing first-hand all the fun and learning to be had there.


Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at eiversen@start-engineering.com

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEngNow.

Just published! A bilingual version of Dream, Invent, Create, for making engineering come alive in Spanish and English at the same time.

Our new Dream, Invent, Create Teacher’s Guide makes it easy to get started teaching elementary school engineering, even with no training in the field.

For any outreach or education program, all of our popular K-12 engineering books, What’s Engineering?, Dream, Invent, Create, and Start Engineering: A Career Guide, can help deliver an accessible, engaging picture of engineering to all kinds of K-12 audiences.


Photos: Laser Weapon System aboard the USS Ponce, courtesy of the United States Navy; Laser experiment, courtesy of United States Air Force.