Pentagon officials debut innovation steering group

The new group is tasked with looking for areas in research and engineering that, if improved, would make the Defense Department better at adapting new technology.

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The Pentagon has launched a new steering group dedicated to synchronizing innovation efforts, according to the Pentagon’s top research official.

Barbara McQuiston, DOD’s acting under secretary of defense for research and engineering, told senators that the new steering group would “articulate changes that need to take place internally in order to become more rapid in adaptation of technology and to be more flexible in being able to do that.”

“What we’re doing in innovation is looking across the DOD and transforming a lot of the processes in order to be better adapters of technology and to more efficiently and rapidly modernize,” McQuiston testified before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense on April 13.

The steering group, at the direction of Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, is designed to be a conduit for DOD leaders to collaborate, synchronize efforts and share information, McQuiston wrote in her submitted testimony.

“Our services have the burden, sometimes, of having the legacy systems and the newer disruptive technologies coming onboard,” she said. “We’re moving modernization ahead but we can always do it better and innovatively.”

That means managing existing IT more efficiently and effectively, she said. But it also means increasing outreach to the industry.

McQuiston said DIU has been instrumental in bringing on non-traditional companies, particularly small businesses, to work with the Defense Department, “but more is required.”

During the hearing, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) pushed to permanently reauthorize the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs for DOD, which are set to expire in 2022.

“Based on what we’ve heard and what we know is significant about the SBIR program, we should start from now to extend, reauthorize that -- and I would argue that we should reauthorize it permanently,” Shaheen said.

McQuiston said the programs were an economic “engine” for the department and could be a net gain for the overall economy.

A recent study of the SBIR/STTR programs found that DOD investments in small business research and development have generated a 22-to-1 return on investment over the past 23 years, McQuiston told the committee.

 “Anything we can do to encourage and bridge the gap between defense needs and small business capabilities will be critical,” she said, naming DOD’s Mentor-Protege program as one such example. “That’s the key: to be flexible and able to work at speed, at commercial speed.”

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