Office of Naval Research strengthens the U.S. role in science and technology
Since 1946, ONR has funded engineers, physicists, mathematicians, oceanographers, meteorologists and other techies as they do research
in support of the U.S. and its allies
ONR has invested millions of dollars in HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions
By Paula A. Paige
Endorsed by the White House, a national effort is under way to encourage American students to pursue careers in STEM: science, technology, engineering and math. The movement has energized the Office of Naval Research (ONR, Arlington, VA), the organization that provides science and technology to maintain the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps’ technological war-fighting dominance.
President Barack Obama’s recently announced $260 million “educate to innovate” initiative mobilizes corporations, foundations and even videogame makers to promote the study of science and technology. This aligns well with ONR’s longstanding agenda to attract and nurture the next generation of innovators. With statistics showing a steady decrease in U.S. scientists, a focus on STEM careers is clearly a key priority for ONR as the Navy and Marine Corps’ science and technology provider.
Addressing the future
“ONR system commands and other Navy commands have been addressing the future STEM workforce issue,” says Kam Ng, PhD, deputy director of research for ONR. His responsibilities include managing and setting goals for the Navy’s STEM program, which has a budget of $20 million this year.
“A key issue is an aging Navy science and engineering workforce, which is why the Navy’s labs are always trying to attract the best and brightest,” Ng explains. “This is not just a Department of Navy and Department of Defense workforce issue; this is a national problem.”
The shortfall in the STEM workforce could cause the United States to lose its competitive advantage in the global market, Ng believes. “I applaud President Obama’s campaign to enlist partners to invest money, time and volunteer efforts to encourage students, especially in middle and high school, to pursue STEM careers.”
The Navy’s top leaders are also on board. Sean J. Stackley, assistant Secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, recently asked chief of naval research Rear Admiral Nevin P. Carr Jr “to take the lead working across system commands to identify current initiatives and opportunities, and bring forward a recommendation to leverage available resources to promote this worthy objective.”
Feeding the pipeline
Empowered by the presidential mandate and naval leaders, ONR’s top execs will continue nourishing the organization’s STEM pipeline through its work with universities, for-profit and nonprofit companies and principal investigators. ONR offers partnership opportunities and university research initiatives for basic and applied research through national and DoD programs like the Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative, Defense University Research Instrumentation Program, Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists & Engineers and the Young Investigator Program.
Since 1946, ONR has funded engineers, physicists, mathematicians, oceanographers, meteorologists and thousands of other scientists as they conduct research in support of the U.S. and its allies. These investments in discovery and invention, innovative naval prototypes and future naval capabilities have contributed to many state-of-the-art technologies, including GPS satellites, lasers, cell phones, radar and robotics.
According to research by the National Science Foundation (NSF, Arlington, VA), in the past decade China has emerged as the leader in Asia’s growing science and technology community, with its government declaring science and technology education to be the strategic engine of sustainable economic development. NSF’s data on India suggests that it, too, is increasingly seeking rapid technological development.
The U.S. continues to have the highest percentage of the population aged twenty-five to sixty-four with bachelors degrees or higher, but other countries are catching up. The number of bachelors degrees in science and engineering (S&E) rose significantly in the 1990s in Asia. NSF statistics show China’s output doubled from 1990 to 2002, and increases elsewhere in Asia ranged from 40 to more than 200 percent.
In Europe, new S&E bachelors degree holders rose nearly 80 percent, NSF reports. The number of students graduating with S&E degrees increased in the U.S., too, but by only 26 percent from 1990 to 2002, and 38 percent from 2002 to 2004.
NSF statistics also show global disparities in the number of students graduating with purely engineering degrees. In recent years Asian and European undergraduate engineering degrees have more than doubled; in the U.S. they actually declined slightly.
“Making science sexy?”
“One of the reasons you see many students from Asia going into STEM fields is their countries have made it a national priority,” says Dr Keith Moo-Young. Moo-Young, an engineer for more than eighteen years, is dean of engineering at California State University, Los Angeles, and his office has a longstanding educational partnership with the Department of the Navy.
“It hasn’t been a priority here, and it’s not considered sexy.” Students’ choices, he says, are heavily influenced by the media, and they go for areas like law, medicine and forensics. “It’s challenging convincing students to go into STEM career fields when they have multiple options. But the new initiative by President Obama will significantly help.”
Moo-Young hopes that the research contracts and internships offered by ONR to supplement the educational experience of students will encourage them to “take the road less traveled, and the careers that require a much more rigorous undergraduate experience.
“With students, you have to create an environment where the light bulb goes off, and they say, ‘Now I have a purpose. Now I know why I studied.’”
Incidentally, he adds, “Anything we can get to enhance the educational experience is truly a lifeline to keeping faculty invigorated in the latest trends. I am ecstatic and delighted that we were successful in that endeavor.”
The wake-up call
“I think we will see a surge in people who are interested in the STEM fields,” says Dr Rosalind Wynne, assistant professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering and director of the laboratory for light-wave devices at Villanova University (Villanova, PA). But, she believes, “They will approach scientific problems with a new set of creative tools.
“It will be similar to the level of excitement and innovation that occurred after the end of World War II and during the 60s with the space program, where allowing people to dream and giving them access to tools to realize those dreams led to a flurry of science and technological innovations.”
Wynne received an ONR fellowship in 2001 to help her complete her PhD. The fellowship, she says, “gave me support and the financial independence to follow up and realize my technical dreams, when other avenues of support were limited.”
Attracting the best and brightest
Along with its new sense of urgency, the science and technology community is also confronting demographic changes in its workforce. By 2050, the U.S. Census Bureau forecasts, more than 50 percent of the population will be members of ethnic groups that are usually underrepresented in S&E.
The shifting demographics in the U.S. means ONR must reach out to more diverse communities to maintain the health of its defense science and engineering workforce. Since 1985, the organization has invested millions of dollars in historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other minority-serving institutions. ONR awarded nearly $6 million to HBCUs in 2008, more than half of it to fund research performed at the institutions.
“We do this because we need to attract every bright young mind we can to a career in science and technology,” says chief of naval research RADM Carr. “I embrace the chief of naval operations’ philosophy that the Navy must reflect the face of the nation.”
Current HBCU programs include a summer faculty research program, a research and education partnership program and a research partnership program. They are all focused on boosting the participation of HBCU institutions in naval science and technology.
Another bright note is the HBCU future faculty fellowship program, which helps develop engineering faculty for HBCUs. Recipients are selected for study and research leading to PhD degrees in engineering; they move into the engineering faculties of their chosen HBCUs. The program has produced forty-four new PhDs since it started in 1992.
Dr Felecia Nave: ‘It’s good to have leverage’
Felecia Nave, PhD holds one of the ONR-funded doctorates. Now she’s an associate professor of ChE and interim assistant dean for the college of engineering at Prairie View A&M University (Prairie View, TX). Nave admits the financial enhancement provided by the fellowship was a lifeline.
In 1999, when she received the ONR fellowship, Nave had a husband and new baby. ONR’s fellowship, which included a $20,000 stipend and $8,500 a semester for tuition and travel to conferences, “helped me concentrate on finishing my degree and not on survival. It was one of the best things going for fellowships.” It also positioned her to come back and teach at an HBCU.
Nave, who was raised in a small Mississippi town, credits her grandparents for paving the
way. “We weren’t affluent,” she says. “My grandparents never finished high school, but they understood the importance of a good education and ensured that their children completed
their educations. They had nine children; six went on to get their bachelors degrees; three
of the six have post-doc degrees. The grandchildren, of which I’m one, all have bachelor and advanced degrees.
“I have the highest degree, a PhD,” she notes.
Driving the U.S. economy
For many years the U.S. didn’t have to worry about being competitive, points out Dr Alexander Winser, interim dean of the college of engineering at HBCU North Carolina A&T. “That’s not the case now,” he declares. “In order for us to once again become the world leader, we have to emphasize STEM careers. That is going to drive the U.S. economy.”
Winser is an ONR future faculty fellow himself. “Faculty members tend to recruit PhD students from the top universities, and African-American kids are not typically in that group,” he observes. “The ONR HBCU program lets us search for and recruit good students wherever we find them. Once we get students, the grant goes directly to the student.”
ONR has garnered many awards for its support of HBCUs. Most recently it was recognized in a survey of ABET-accredited minority engineering school deans as a top supporter of HBCUs and minority-serving institutions for 2009.
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