How Can We Improve the Military-Academia Relationship?


Dr. Scott Walper, a molecular biologist in the Naval Research Laboratory’s center for biomolecular science and engineering, advises Ebony Stadler, a biomedical engineering senior from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, as part of a summer research program held at the laboratory. This is one of a number of current formal programs that connect Navy research personnel with academia.

By Lt. Adam T. Biggs, MSC, USN

Science and technology advancements in the modern world are rarely the product of individual effort. Research projects often require teams working together toward a common goal to achieve success—and the bigger the project, the more teams are needed to complete it. This personnel prerequisite makes deepening our network of partners a priority for naval operations, something the chief of naval operations outlined in his strategic guidance, “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority.” We should, the document states, “deepen the dialogue with private research and development labs, and academia.”

Academia is a vital partner in Navy research. Some of the best and most impactful ideas originated from people who have never worn the uniform. So we need to ask: how do we currently conduct research involving academia, and how can we strengthen this relationship?

Working with academic collaborators has many advantages. Foremost among these is that academic institutions have some of the best and brightest scientists, who are in turn training the next generation of best and brightest scientists. The Navy benefits by tapping into this wealth of expertise and enthusiasm for scientific endeavors. In addition, universities sometimes have easier access to available research subject pools than government installations. This aspect occasionally allows research (particularly basic research in fields such as psychology) to move forward at a faster pace than what a government laboratory might be able to accomplish.

There also are disadvantages to consider when evaluating military-academic collaborations. The obvious concern is that academic collaborators will likely not have the clearance to be involved with more sensitive projects. In addition, academic and military collaborators often have very different primary goals: the former group seeks insights and discoveries for their own sake, while the latter is driven by a need to work toward practical results for Sailors and Marines. The two goals are not necessarily incompatible, but making them work toward a common outcome can be a challenge. The peer-review-centered metrics of academia must be meshed with the technology-focused goals of the Navy and Marine Corps.


The solutions to these issues are relatively straightforward. Classification problems can be solved by vetting academic collaborators through the clearance process, and working out the kinks of differing agendas may not be a large-scale issue at all. A more prominent but related concern involves the essential knowledge gap between academic pursuits and military applications. The civilian and military worlds are separated by a common language—jargon, acronyms, and terms that complicate communication. Civilians may not have the situational awareness to truly innovate for military research and development. One example of this problem involves new methods of dealing with in-flight mishaps in naval aviation. Spatial disorientation contributes to a significant number of flight accidents, yet many cognitive scientists who specialize in spatial processing do not properly understand naval aviation, nor do they have the knowledge to sort through military acronyms and easily learn about the subject. The disconnection creates a gap between the military and academia that hinders productive collaborations.

Bridging this knowledge gap and guiding academic researchers helps to accomplish the core mission of the Office of Naval Research (ONR). One way ONR provides this guidance is by identifying areas for grant submissions in agency announcements. Given the increasingly high cost of conducting even relatively straightforward experiments, academic researchers regularly seek out external funding to complete their projects. In turn, scholars contour various research interests to align with corresponding interests of various funding agencies. Funders thus maintain a subtle, yet firm grasp on the direction of university research while leaving appropriate levels of freedom to the academic investigators. This approach serves as the first layer of finding synergy between academia and the military.

Beyond aligning academic activities with the needs of the Navy by soliciting and awarding grant funds, the next question involves what the military’s level of involvement should actually be. One possible method is the “fund and forget” model, where ONR could fund an academic project and then receive only project updates and a final report. This hands-off approach has the advantage of leaving academic scholars the freedom to pursue the ever evolving changes in scientific knowledge. No proposal ever perfectly predicts what will occur or what the outcomes will be—life alone intervenes to prevent flawless projections, and there are the inevitable realities of asking questions to which we do not know the answers. A laissez-faire philosophy would allow academic researchers to ask a question and then continue wherever the answers might lead.

The other end of the spectrum would be to embed military members as direct contributors to the project, thereby creating a true collaboration rather than military-funded, academic-conducted projects. Military scientists can help civilians parse through the jargon and provide insights that academic researchers can use to understand the problem better. Furthermore, a Navy collaborator can keep the Navy’s interests at the forefront and continually steer project goals as needed to align with naval interests. The end result will be projects with more tangible improvements to naval operations without sacrificing the ingenuity and creativity of the academic collaborators.

The Department of the Navy gets a better final research product by investing more than just our funds—we also invest our time and personnel in the research to ensure that it proves valuable to the Navy and Marine Corps. An excellent example of this form of public-private partnership is at the Air Force Center for the Sustainment of Trauma and Readiness Skills in Cincinnati, Ohio, where embedded Air Force physicians, nurses, and medical staff members not only train for field operations, but actively participate in clinical and basic research on trauma care. Daily on-site research collaborations between the active-duty military personnel and University of Cincinnati researchers have kept the research relevant to the combat environment. The novel techniques, equipment, and protocols developed in Cincinnati have contributed to military medicine’s tremendous successes in treating trauma casualties as well as advancing trauma care here at home.

Training Initiatives

Either approach (fund-and-forget or including Navy collaborators) has its advantages, but these differing involvements may not be practical solutions. I doubt that anyone would advocate for a true fund-and-forget approach across all projects—handing over Navy money to scientists with little military knowledge or oversight would be tantamount to putting people who have never driven behind the wheel of a vehicle. Likewise, it is not feasible to provide a Navy billet to every Navy-funded project, nor would every project need such thorough military interaction. Between these two extremes exists what may be a more practical middle ground. That is, we could focus on certain training mechanisms to provide our academic collaborators with procedural knowledge about the problems they are trying to tackle.

These training initiatives take many different forms, including small workshops, conferences, or direct involvement in training operations. For example, a workshop could explain how Marines attempt to locate improvised explosive devices for visual search scientists, or basic aviator operations for spatial cognition scientists. Another option is to pursue more talk and poster formats at various conferences. Many scientists, both military and civilian, often attend only a handful of conferences. This consistency sometimes prevents appropriate crossover between communities and exposure to new findings. In this case, limited conference attendance could prevent proper dissemination of military priorities to civilian collaborators. Our increased presence at primarily civilian conferences immediately creates opportunities for military-academic interactions. Any such involvement could help bridge gaps between the Navy and academia without requiring full, continued military involvement in the project.


The author (standing, left) discusses how the Reduced Oxygen Breathing Device can assess hypoxia among naval aviators with Nathan Andrews (right), an intern from the University of Florida.

Getting It Right

On the continuum of fund-and-forget to providing a full Navy billet, what is the right level of involvement between academia and the military? Unfortunately there is no single answer here. Some projects need more guidance than others, and some projects require more direct military involvement. The right level of involvement will change based on the project. Increased involvement with the military, however, will likely never be a bad thing for ONR-funded projects. Project managers could favorably evaluate academic scientists if they: include military collaborators, seek out specialized training to enhance their procedural military knowledge, or have scientists who are veterans themselves. Individual project managers will have to determine the right level of Navy and Marine Corps involvement for any particular project, although increased involvement will almost certainly yield increased benefits. Our increased involvement thus provides the second layer of synergy between the military and academia.

Beyond vast improvements for translating scientific findings into improved Navy and Marine Corps operations, military-academic collaborations carry another significant advantage through recruitment. When building the naval science and technology workforce of tomorrow, we will need to recruit heavily from academia. We need scientists with skill sets that come from, or at least begin with, a top-notch university education. Unfortunately, 30-second television ads and recruiting posters are not enough to attract top-tier scientists. We have to explore alternative methods other than mainstream recruiting when pursuing a science and technology workforce. So what is the best way to recruit scientists and other technical personnel into the military?

Greater involvement is the Navy and Marine Corps’ best recruiting tool for pursuing scientists and technical personnel. Many scholars who chose to join the service, in one capacity or another, first reached out to someone they knew who conducted military research and development. Consequently, military-academic collaborations are our front line when it comes to recruiting the science and technology workforce of tomorrow. We gain greater presence and visibility to potential recruits by becoming directly involved with university research. Scientists can then approach someone they know and ask the myriad of questions they have when determining the path for their personal careers. We could provide guidance about the many different options, from working at a Navy or Marine Corps laboratory to actually serving in uniform. Academic scientists then would better understand our mission, and we would gain built-in prominence more effective than any recruiting brochure can provide.

This presence also would enhance recruitment by dispelling many common misconceptions about the military. For example, one common misconception is that joining the Navy would immediately require serving aboard ship or heading into a war zone—even though Navy researchers are far more likely to be in a laboratory than on the front lines. Scientists, along with the general population, also often tend to have unrealistic views about the military through popular culture. By becoming more directly involved with academic researchers, we become real people with whom they can interact and ask questions. We can enhance how scientists view the military while also enhancing research quality and the ability to translate academic findings into military applications.

Another advantage to greater involvement will be in the type of scientists we recruit. Some scholars prefer basic research, which is essentially the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Conversely, military research and development will always have real-world applications. Some scientists prefer this type of applied science, and these individuals are exactly whom we want to recruit into the Navy and Marine Corps. All scientists relish seeing their work make a difference, yet there is a critical distinction between seeing your work cited by other scholars and seeing your work make a change in the real world. Not everyone in academia has the chance to see what tangible changes occurred because of their work. With a greater presence at universities, we will have more opportunities to help academics see the transition from laboratory experiment to changes in naval policy, procedure, or technology. Some will relish these opportunities, some will not. Those who enjoy the opportunity will start asking their military collaborators the very questions we want them asking, such as how is being a Navy scientist different from working at a university? And what sort jobs are available? The Navy will, in turn, have attracted those scientists most eager to make a difference in the real world. Therein rests the third layer of finding synergy between the military and academia.

Ultimately, the future science and technology workforce will rely heavily on academia. Significant scientific and technical training, if nothing else, will have to occur at universities, which makes academia an exceptionally important link in naval research and development. Finding the proper synergy with this prominent research partner will involve continued elite performance at the three levels described here (guidance through funding, increased military involvement in the research process, and as a passive recruiting tool) and more. This enhanced synergy could yield numerous benefits, including a better final product and better recruiting tools. It is a win-win scenario all around as we move toward building the Navy and Marine Corps of tomorrow.

About the author:
Lt. Biggs is a research psychologist at the Naval Medical Research Unit Dayton in Dayton, Ohio.