With budget problems weighing heavily on the minds of many, a senior Army official warned that a general shortage of skilled scientists and engineers should make the Army wary of cutting labs and the brightest of its researchers.
The Army’s science and technology sector should avoid “the tendency to employ ‘last in, first out’ mentalities should we need to reduce manpower,” said Marilyn M. Freeman, the deputy assistant secretary of the Army for research and technology. She testified April 17, before the Senate Armed Services Committee, subcommittee on emerging threats and capabilities.
Freeman told lawmakers one of her top concerns is finding new talent, as well as retaining the best talent already in the Army’s research labs.
“People are the Army’s most valuable resources” Freeman said. Without their skill, “the Army R&D (research and development) enterprise would be in serious trouble.”
Direct Hire Authority, for people with advanced degrees; the Laboratory Personnel Demonstration Project; and the Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation Scholarship for Service Program are all programs that have allowed the Army to bring aboard the best science, technology, engineering and mathematics-educated personnel, Freeman said.
Freeman also told senators of her concerns that Army research might be first on the chopping block in budget-cutting efforts. “We must guard against using S&T (science and technology) as a bill payer, and I am concerned that S&T will take a disproportionate share of personnel cuts, should we have to reduce manpower.”
One method Freeman said she wants more information on before it could be used to increase the number of scientists, engineers and researchers in the Army, is the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest, or MAVNI program.
Under the MAVNI program, non-citizens with skills the Army needs, such as medical, cultural or language skills, are offered employment that leads to citizenship. The Army has used the program to hire foreign-language speakers to work in Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance. Senators wanted to know if the program could be extended to hire those with science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, skills.
The concept of making offers to people who are not citizens, but who want to be citizens, and who have skills the Army needs, is a “good and positive thing,” Freeman said. And she is supportive of the program.
But before expanding MAVNI to include hiring those with STEM skills, she said, “we need to study it a good bit more because I think there are second and third-order effects that we really need to think about.”
A better solution to finding skilled workers for Army labs that possess advanced degrees in STEM education involves encouraging more Americans to seek those degrees, she said.
“The real solution that we need to think about is to really get more U.S. citizens into our schools through STEM education and into getting the degrees and the advanced degrees in the fields we need them,” she said.
Lawmakers also asked about the status of Army research labs and facilities. Freeman said that a study was in progress to first count all those labs and facilities, and to then assess the condition of those facilitates and to identify what are the “worst things we have to take care of” and then look at other improvements that need to be made.
The survey, identifying all facilities that the Army owns, is complete, she said. By the end of October, she said, she’ll have the results from engineers on what needs to be done to improve those facilities.
Freeman told lawmakers that her vision for Army research and technology is to “invent, innovate, and demonstrate technology-enabled capabilities.” She said she hears from Soldiers that “technology saved their lives” and was critical to “their remarkable accomplishments.”
For that reason, she said, it is important for the Army to keep a strong Army laboratory system. The current S&T enterprise comprises 22 labs and centers spanning five commands, which are located throughout the United States. The labs and centers are home to roughly 19,000 federal civilian employees.