AFRL to Tour Globe In Search of S&T Innovation

Under Maj. Gen. William Cooley's leadership—which officially began May 2 (as seen above at the hands of Gen. Ellen M. Pawlikowski)—Air Force Research Laboratory is leading USAF's year-long science and technology strategy review. USAF photo by Richard Oriez.

Over the next year, the Air Force Research Laboratory is going to travel to almost a dozen research centers as part of the Air Force’s newly announced science and technology (S&T) strategy review.

But it’s not sure where it’s going, yet.

The visits are part of an attempt to open up communication and potential collaboration with academia and industrial partners that “historically do not” cooperate or work with DOD, AFRL commander Maj. Gen. William Cooley told reporters Wednesday at ASC17. Looking both domestically and internationally, AFRL will identify academic or enterprise hubs, whether by pedigree or geographical proximity to its research targets.

While Cooley couldn’t identify very specific areas of S&T AFRL will be focusing on, he said the four major domains for research will be “space, air, cyber, and multi-domain C2 [command and control].” With these broad strokes, AFRL hopes to reach researchers who’ve never considered what their work could do for the service.

“They may not know or be as familiar” with USAF and what it does, or what needs doing within its organization. For example, AFRL will share what USAF’s challenges are, “the types of missions” it’s concerned with, and ask what such agents of innovation might be able to offer.

“It’s really hitting the entire ecosystem of S&T,” added Morley Stone, AFRL’s Chief Technology Officer, meaning as the agency is determining where to go, it’s not necessarily discriminating against small businesses or lesser known laboratories. Stone added—like the rest of the Department of Defense—AFRL is aware of an “undeniable fact:” S&T is receiving a smaller share of the budget than before, and “given that, how do we keep reaching out to traditional and non-traditional” partners and engage in applied research.

Stone went on to call the effort “an international research endeavor,” to which Cooley added USAF has a “large number” of “smaller dollar” grants already spanning the globe’s universities. Such alliances are in tune with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’s statement earlier in the day at the same conference.

On top of asking the world what AFRL can do to innovate its mission sets, the agency will also be seeking on its own—and from the outside—innovative solutions to the way it approaches science and technology research in the first place.

“We intend to understand that through the lens of other organizations,” Cooley said. This hopeful introspection, eagerness to change from within, and the ?world innovation tour to integrate more agents of change to S&T efforts are examples that set aside this S&T project from other studies.

Citing what he called the “influential” 2010 study Air Force Technology Horizons 2010-2030, Stone said, “The key difference” with this effort is “really digging into ‘How do we change our portfolio in response to what we learn.’”

“The real metric is ‘What’s changed?’” Cooley added about past studies AFRL puts “on the shelf” in this regard. “In addition to this study, I’m going to be looking for measurable results.”

Past that level of detail, Cooley didn’t add much, saying “we don’t know what we don’t know,” shying from identifying specific focus areas.

Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson announced the S&T strategy review Monday. While AFRL is going to lead the effort, USAF’s Science Advisory Board will lead a parallel effort and input will come from the National Academy of Sciences.

“I view this through a much broader national security lens,” Cooley said. “This is about our United States Air Force and how we’re going to ensure we maintain our technological edge.”