‘Determined To Change’: Diversity A Main Goal Of New Air Force Research Partnership

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A joint air drill between U.S. and South Korea

‘Determined To Change’: Diversity A Main Goal Of New Air Force Research Partnership

Micaela Burrow on January 24, 2023

  • The Air Force announced a first-of-its-kind research partnership with Howard University, a historically black institution, aimed at addressing perceived racial disparities in Pentagon funding recipients.
  • A provision in Congress’ fiscal year 2023 defense bill set aside $131.7 million specifically for minority-serving universities.
  • “Clearly DOD had historically not done enough to connect with such an incredible depth of talent, expertise and potential,” Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall said at the ceremony Monday.

The Air Force finalized its first research partnership with a minority-focused university Monday, part of a broader push from the Department of Defense (DOD) to scrap “barriers of equal opportunity” in university research contracts.

The $90 million contract with Howard University, which holds a federal designation as a historically black institution, aims to support research in AI and even out perceived racial disparities in the Pentagon’s partnerships with universities across the country, according to a press release. The contract is the Air Force’s first university research center and DOD’s first ever agreement of the kind with a school classified as a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) or Minority Serving Institution (MSI), the DOD said after announcing the plan in June.

“Clearly DOD had historically not done enough to connect with such an incredible depth of talent, expertise and potential,” Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall said at the announcement ceremony at Howard on Monday. Bearing that in mind, DOD and the Air Force sought out HBCUs with which to forge a university-affiliated research center agreement, he added.

MSIs are colleges or universities where a designated minority group, such as Hispanics, comprise at least 25% of the undergraduate student body, according to a Department of Education report. HBCU, a category of MSI, refers to an institution established for black Americans prior to 1964.

Howard will lead a consortium of minority institutions, including Jackson State, Delaware State, Bowie State, Norfolk State, Hampton, Florida Memorial and Tougaloo College, to develop “tactical autonomy” technology for Pentagon combat systems, according to a press release. It’s the latest of fifteen university-affiliated research centers, arrangements allowing defense and industry officials to collaborate with university staff and students in a shared space.

The partnership with Howard will help DOD develop systems enhancing warfighters’ combat capacity and “protect our most precious asset — our men and women in uniform,” Austin said following Kendall’s remarks.

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It also addresses “a need to grow and diversify the pool of scientists and engineers throughout the country, particularly those contributing to our national security,” Kendall said. The arrangement could elevate Howard’s research status to a reputation-building tier 1, “very high research activity” institution in accordance with a new law passed by Congress as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

Congress set aside $131.7 million in the 2023 NDAA to conduct a pilot program aimed at deepening research and development partnerships between the DOD and HBCUs and MSIs and to boost targeted universities from “high research status” to “very high research status,” calculated based on annual research expenditures and number of degrees awarded among other criteria, according to the provision. The legislation followed an an April 2022 National Academies reportadvocating for “social justice” norms across the DOD enterprise.

The report found that HBCUs and MSIs receive disproportionately small amounts of research and development funding from the DOD than higher education institutions that do not fall into either of those categories.

HBCUs graduate roughly 30% of African American students with degrees in science, engineering and related fields, according to the National Science Foundation. However, HBCUs receive less than 0.5% of DOD research funding, Kendall said.

“You know, that just doesn’t add up,” Austin said. “As secretary of defense, I’m determined to change that.”

DOD offers more research and development contracts to universities and private companies than any other federal agency, according to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office.

“The DOD must continue to make strides in removing the barriers of equal opportunity in contracting and research partnerships,” David Honey, the deputy undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, said in March, discussing the possible deal with Howard. “This begins with developing an inclusive culture to help build trusted relationships between our university-operated contract laboratories and the HBCU/MI community.”

The Air Force, DOD and Howard University did not immediately respond to the Daily Caller News Foundation’s requests for comment.

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