The Defense-Research Culture Clash

April 2, 2013 Topic: Technology Region: United States

The Defense-Research Culture Clash

The Pentagon's academic spending often causes tension over information security.


Since World War II, enhanced military research during peacetime has ensured technological preparedness in times of war. This year, the Department of Defense (DoD) will invest over $2 billion in academic research on such topics as nanotechnology, electro-optics, fluid dynamics, astrophysics and autonomous systems. To be sure, the partnership between the U.S. government and academia is mutually beneficial. Yet the relationship is often been strained. This strain is typically related to disagreement on how to safeguard research results.

Foreign governments have used their intelligence structures to tap into the U.S. intellectual pipeline, acquiring trailblazing science without funding research that may take years to conduct. This is theft. And the booty effectively narrows the margin of U.S. economic and military supremacy.


The problem is fueled by the conflicting assumptions of government and academia. While DoD seeks the security of a closed environment, academia strives for openness and transparency. In an environment of continued academic globalization and impending U.S. government budget cuts, these factors will combine to create a heightened risk of compromised intellectual material.

Academia in the United States is rooted in the belief in a knowledge-based culture that is reliant on the unfettered flow of ideas. Central to achieving maximum academic capacity is the inclusion of the most talented professors, researchers and students available. Foreign students stream into U.S. universities well aware of their reputation for excellence. Universities open all classes and research opportunities to any student officially enrolled, regardless of nationality. If a project is not classified pursuant to a DoD mandate, then it is available to any and all. Yet foreign intelligence defectors have confirmed that unclassified research is also highly coveted—and it is not uncommon for unclassified research to ultimately find its way into larger research projects that carry national security implications.

U.S. government efforts to protect sensitive intellectual material are guided by National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 189. The document creates a permissive environment for scientific inquiry, mandating that fundamental research will remain unobstructed to the maximum possible degree. Fundamental research identifies basic scientific and engineering studies that are broadly published and shared with the greater scientific community. That research, typically funded via a budget category labeled 6.1, is seldom if ever controlled or restricted. Budget category 6.2, however, is earmarked for exploratory development and is characterized by research that may support military applications. In anticipation of budget cuts and associated reductions in government oversight, category 6.2 funding must include provisions that mandate oversight requirements. The same pot of money that drives academic research must be used to protect its results.

Directive 189 was produced in 1985 at the height of the Cold War. Since then, terrorists, international crime syndicates and spies have demonstrated that borders pose little significance. Rising powers like China have routinely penetrated universities intent on chipping away at U.S. military supremacy. The threats are numerous and globalization has made them far more difficult to detect. Thus 1980s regulation must be re-visited to validate its continued applicability amidst the altered landscape.

With no shortage of oversight bodies, perhaps the most effective deterrent element must be those administrators, professors and researchers employed by the universities where the problem resides. Suspicion must be followed by responsible action. Unsolicited invitations and requests for research data must be looked at with the same critical eye that guides scientific discovery. University professors need to assume a healthy level of caution at the expense of deeply rooted tendencies toward openness.

For academia, the changes prompted by a groundswell of globalization are still in the nascent stage. The future will bring aggressive changes that further challenge government protection capabilities and advance the cause of foreign intelligence services. Residential universities will likely be reduced in relevance and internet-enabled institutions will fill the void. Lectures, research and experiments will be conducted by students in remote locations. Thus, the unsecure networks that allow for international discourse also afford additional avenues for foreign intelligence services to access desired academic information.

For government agencies responsible for protecting secrets derived through university research, the globalization of academia could not have come at a worse time. Debilitating cuts to agency budgets are imminent. Investigative elements will be forced to prioritize. Counterintelligence support to universities engaged in DoD research will become a fringe responsibility likely to see a reduced effort.

Academic research is a vital component in ensuring that the United States maintains its military and economic advantage over adversaries. The basic role of DoD is to defend Americans from foreign aggression. To that end, it has been entrusted with over $500 billion in annual appropriations. Responsible stewardship of those taxpayer funds should require measures to secure the cutting-edge science developed on U.S. campuses.

Andrew Snowdon is a special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) and formerly served as a U.S. Navy officer. He is currently a graduate student at the U.S. Naval War College. The opinions expressed are his own and do not represent those of the U.S. Government, its departments, agencies, or NCIS.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Tambo. CC BY-SA 3.0.