Educators, security advocates and military leaders are hopeful that Congress will approve a proposed increase in funding for a new scholarship program that is designed to attract and train a new generation of technically skilled personnel for careers in research areas critical to national security.
A bi-partisan amendment to the Defense Appropriations Act (HR 2863), introduced by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine ), provides additional funding for the Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation (SMART) defense scholarship program, increasing the program’s total value to $20 million from $10 million and adding an additional $40 million for research programs such as the University Research Initiative.
That initiative awards grants for general science- and engineering-based research at institutions of higher education, which can lead to national security benefits.
The amendment passed in the Senate but was not included in the House version of the defense appropriations bill, and currently is being debated in conference, according to Bill Christian, co-chair of the National Coalition for Security Research, which supports the measure. The advocacy group is made up of members of the higher education community, trade associations and industry members devoted to increasing funding for security research.
“The fact that we got it passed in the Senate we see as a very positive development,” Christian said. “Based on the national security arguments alone, there should be a lot of support on the House side.”
The SMART program began as a pilot program in October 2004 that was designed to reinvigorate interest in science, math and technologies, according to Kathleen Kaplan, a research program manager for the Air Force Research Laboratory, which manages the program.
Last year, 31 scholarships were awarded to students who will have Department of Defense mentors from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the Defense Information Systems Agency, Kaplan said in an e-mail.
Students who received the awards started school this autumn . Under the program, their tuition, fees, books, lab expenses and room and board are covered. Awardees must participate in a summer internship at one of the participating laboratories. They also must work for two years as civil servants at one of the DoD research laboratories after they finish their degrees, Kaplan said.
Christian said that while there has been a lot of interest and success with overseas students seeking to pursue science careers that benefit the military, more needs to be done to cultivate these skills domestically.
“We feel this is particularly important from a national security perspective,” Christian said. “We’re approaching the retirement age for the majority of our scientists and technologists at DoD, and so we want to advocate what we believe to be farsighted, visionary programs so that we don’t lag behind.”
SMART focuses on various areas of engineering, as well as computers and materials science, physics, oceanography, mathematics and the geosciences, Kaplan said.
The program has strong support from the military as well. Ronald M. Sega, undersecretary of the U.S. Air Force, said in an Oct. 7 interview that technology is going to be changing more and more in the 21st century.
“It is important that we push that frontier,” Sega, the Air Force’s No. 2 man in uniform, said.
He added recruiting and retaining a highly trained technical work force is one of his top priorities.
Sega said his short-term strategy is to get the word out to top students that the Air Force is working on important problems — weapons and systems that are challenging and also important to the country. “We need to attract top talent to these areas,” he said. One thing he would like to see is more programs that provide frequent opportunities for hands-on work, such as small satellites and launchers with short cycle times.
Sega said the passage of such programs as SMART, particularly when they include mentoring, make a difference in attracting top talent.