The Defense Department sponsors Duke University researchers to conduct projects in mathematics, engineering and biology that advance military capabilities and strengthen national security, a university official said in a recent phone interview.
Duke University researchers actively participate in DOD programs and awards, and projects are designed to help the warfighter enhance intelligence gathering, avoid battlefield hazards and maintain medical readiness, said Dr. Jim Siedow, the university’s vice provost for research.
“There’s always been an interest in Duke scientists for projects that might be defense related,” Siedow said. “It’s an important element of research for us, given that a lot of what the military does today involves gathering intelligence — so the better you’re able to do that, the safer the world is likely to be.”
Although the research projects typically do not bear fruit for decades, Siedow described relatively short-term success stories from past and current projects.
“[An electrical engineer professor] developed algorithms applied to the function of cochlear implants that allow people to hear, so there’s a computer technology associated with [it],” he said.
The U.S. Army, Siedow said, now uses the same algorithms, or step-by-step calculations, transforming them into handheld and ground standoff mine detection systems able to detect explosive objects.
“That came out of military-funded work on cochlear implants, which then evolved into helping to detect explosives and landmines in Afghanistan,” he explained.
Another project, pre-symptomatic detection and diagnostics, improves the detection of illnesses caused by pathogens before they become severe, Siedow said.
“In the military, you’ve got a lot of people, often crammed into close quarters, who may be headed out to battle,” Siedow said. “If one of them is coming down with something contagious, whether naturally or from enemy actions, you want to know that before you send 99 [troops] and one infected person into the field. This could ultimately lead to more than 50 of them becoming infected.”
Siedow said the challenge is to detect when someone has been exposed to or is carrying a disease.
“You can understand the importance of that, but you can also understand the complexity of that,” Siedow said of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency-funded venture.
Perhaps one of the more futuristic and science fiction-inspired projects is research in an engineering area known as metamaterials, dubbed the “invisibility cloak,” Siedow said.
And Duke University is one of the world’s leaders in metamaterials research, he said.
Siedow explained that researchers can modify an object’s electromagnetic properties to actually change the nature of the material and its capability of being perceived.
“Think about the old television series ‘Star Trek,’” he said. “The Klingons could ‘cloak’ their spacecraft so they couldn’t be seen … and with metamaterials we can do the same thing.”
Siedow knows of a variety of military uses for such technology.
“It’s one thing to have a stealth fighter that’s hard to see,” he said. “It’s another thing to have an aircraft that literally can’t be seen – by radar or the naked eye, depending on how you align it – even though it’s there.”
The magic behind the science is simple in theory.
“You and I envision something not because we see it, but because light gets refracted off of it,” he said. “You can set up these mechanisms where nothing gets reflected so there isn’t any way of seeing it.”
Siedow believes the metamaterials project is on the verge of bringing about widespread change in how the military operates.
“Within the decade, metamaterials will become an inherent part of our standard military operations,” he said. “We’re very well positioned to take advantage of that and we’ll continue to see DOD funding any number of things.”
The university gets research funding from a variety of DOD agencies, and many projects have heavily integrated the National Institute of Health and the National Science Foundation.
But as funding for NIH and NSF has stabilized or at times even declined, researchers and engineers have also been able to rely on DOD, where science, health and technology projects abound, Siedow said.
DOD partnerships with Duke University as well as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University have, in many instances, led to grants and contracts from the Army Research Office, Siedow said.
DOD-sponsored research expenditures at Duke University increased from $17.7 million in fiscal year 2008 to more than $30 million by 2011, according to the university’s financial reports.
“Many of these projects funded by DOD are interdisciplinary, so they’re being done not only in conjunction with Duke scientists but scientists elsewhere,” Siedow said.
He said even basic research makes the funding and partnerships worthy ventures.
“In the early stages, you’ve got a lot of primary physics and engineering principles that need to be well understood to turn that into a working product,” Siedow said. “Universities have historically been positioned at the early, not latter, stages of that research continuum.”
With hundreds of collaborative research projects in the works over the last several decades, Siedow asserts that scholarly and military research endeavors can coexist and complement each other.
“Most nuclear engineers in this country who work in nuclear power plants got their start on a submarine — that’s the big training ground,” Siedow said. “Service to your country and practicing as a scientist are not incompatible.”