Is DOD overlooking its own innovators?

Silicon Valley has become synonymous with innovation, but government leaders might be missing out on what’s going on in their own labs.

Silicon Valley has become a must-visit destination for Department of Defense leaders in recent years. But the push for more public-private partnerships could have an unintended side effect -- overlooking government's longstanding research and development resources. 

Arun Seraphin, a professional staff member for the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services, said he thinks the fixation on startup-culture innovation has gone too far.

“We like to say that every time a senior leader flies to Silicon Valley to look for innovators, they fly over 57 of their own laboratories,” Seraphin said during an April 5 keynote speech at the National Defense Industry Association’s science and engineering technology event.  “And what message does that send to all of those people working in those laboratories … they don’t actually know what’s going on in their own systems.”

DOD's R&D ecosystem is vast, touching nearly every state.  It includes the service' own research laboratories and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, as well as a wide range of Federally Funded Research and Development Centers. The traditional contracting firms that support DOD’s missions are also integral parts of that network. 

The problem, Seraphin said, is that the traditional defense ecosystem has -- sometimes for good reason -- been branded as slow and risk-averse, with stereotypes about government bureaucracy extending to the industry partners as well.

The traditional industrial base has become “the person who resembles their dog or spouse,” when it comes to high-tech innovation, Seraphin said jokingly.  The result, he argued, has been both senior government leaders and younger tech talent eschew traditional companies and government research in favor of Silicon Valley.

“I think that’s all factually wrong, but I don’t blame anyone for having those perceptions,” Seraphin said. 

He said such perceptions are largely a byproduct of the current acquisition system, but that the traditional defense industrial base needs to work on “telling the story” better -- stressing familiarity with missions and the acquisitions process to help speed things along -- to avoid being overlooked.

And part of telling the story, he said, is appealing to Congress in terms it can understand. 

“What you get credit for is all the failures and the slowness of the process,” he said of the big defense contractors.   

“The Hill has tried to throw more authorities in things like public-private partnerships and manufacturing loan guarantees and more investments up front by the government in sectors of interest,” Seraphin said. 

“We haven’t really embraced the idea that the government can promote technology through the use of both [research and development] dollars but also through the use of procurement dollars.” 

But the government must learn to do that without picking winners and losers, he said. “Because we’ve definitely picked losers.”