At the request of the U.S. Army, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine formed the Panel on Review of Extramural Basic Research at the Army Research Laboratory, which met on August 5-7, 2019, to review the programs of the Physical Sciences Directorate (PSD) of the Army Research Office (ARO), which is an organizational unit within the Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC) Army Research Laboratory (ARL) of the U.S. Army Futures Command’s (AFC) CCDC. The meeting was held at the ARO headquarters in Durham, North Carolina.
The panel’s review was guided by the following statement of task provided by the National Academies:
An ad hoc committee to be named the Panel on Review of Extramural Basic Research at the Army Research Laboratory, to be overseen by the Laboratory Assessments Board (LAB) of the Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences, will be appointed to provide annual assessments of the Army Research Office (ARO) programs. Each year one of the ARO’s three divisions (Information Sciences, Physical Sciences, and Engineering Sciences) will be assessed by a separately appointed panel. These assessments will address criteria to be defined by the ARO. Each year the panel will provide a report summarizing its findings, conclusions, and recommendations. The panel’s report will be made available to the public on the National Academies Press website and will be disseminated in accordance with National Academies policies.
The current report summarizes the 2019 findings of the Panel on Review of Extramural Basic Research at the Army Research Laboratory, which reviewed the programs at the ARO’s PSD. This is the first time that the National Academies is reviewing ARO’s PSD. In 2020, the National Academies is scheduled to conduct a review of the ARO’s Engineering Sciences Directorate’s programs in materials science, electronics, and mechanical sciences. In 2018, the National Academies conducted a review of the ARO’s Information Sciences Directorate’s programs in computing science, network science, and mathematical sciences.
PROGRAMS WITHIN THE PHYSICAL SCIENCES DIRECTORATE
The Army Research Laboratory’s ARO describes its mission as:1
To serve as the Army’s principal extramural basic research agency in the engineering, physical, information and life sciences; developing and exploiting innovative advances to ensure the Nation’s technological superiority. Basic research proposals from educational institutions, nonprofit organizations, and private industry are competitively selected and funded. ARO’s research mission represents the most long-range Army view for changes in its technology. ARO’s research represents the most long-range Army view, with system applications often 20-30 years away. ARO priorities fully integrate Army-wide, long-range planning for research, development, and acquisition. ARO executes its mission through conduct of an aggressive basic science research program on behalf of the Army so that cutting-edge scientific discoveries and the general store of scientific knowledge will be optimally used to develop and improve weapons systems that establish land force dominance. The
ARO research program consists principally of extramural academic research efforts consisting of single investigator efforts, university-affiliated research centers, and specially tailored outreach programs. Each approach has its own objectives and set of advantages. Programs are formulated in consultation with the Army Research Laboratory Directorates; the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC) Research Centers; the Army Medical Research and Materiel Command; the Army Corps of Engineers; and the Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences. The programs are also jointly coordinated and planned through the Defense Science and Technology Reliance process under the Basic Research Panel.
Research in the PSD is focused on basic research to discover, understand, and exploit physical, chemical, and biological phenomena. This research is of a fundamental nature; however, in the long term, discoveries in this area are expected to lead to revolutionary capabilities in sensing, communications, protection, wound healing, power/energy storage and generation, and materials that extend the performance of Army systems well beyond current limits.2 The PSD’s programs are organized into three divisions: Physics (fiscal year [FY] funding of $26.7 million), Chemical Sciences (FY funding of $54.6 million), and Life Sciences (FY funding of about $82.3 million).
There are key differences between ARO and other research funding entities. ARO program managers (PMs) energetically try to create communities with workshops, visits to universities, and presentations. ARO PMs engage in an interactive process with proposers to mature ideas into projects through discussion, white papers, and the Short-Term Innovative Research (STIR) program. ARO PMs are hands-on managers of their projects. This may be a by-product of the process whereby PMs work with potential proposers. The ARO process resembles that of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). ARO PMs view one form of transition of their projects as a follow-on effort funded by another government agency. This attitude has two important benefits: (1) it encourages ARO PMs to seek opportunities—in particular, with other Department of Defense (DoD) components such as DARPA—for keeping ARO-sponsored basic research results alive in the research and development (R&D) ecosystem; and (2) it encourages them to pay attention to the progress of an idea from its origins in basic research through development, deployment, and use.
In general, the PSD’s metrics are strong, with 2,120 peer-reviewed publications in the FY 2016 to 2018 period, and funding for 1,034 graduate students and 511 postdoctoral researchers during the FY 2017 to 2018 period. However, most impressive for PSD focused on outcomes for the Army was the number of successful transitions from bench to application. There were 104 transitions reported for the 3-year period from FY 2016 to 2018, including the development of several commercial products and start-ups based on the science and technology supported by PSD. The transition of fundamental physical science research funded by ARO to applications developed in the ARL intramural laboratories is another good indicator of the success of PSD.
The Physics Division supports research to discover and understand exotic quantum and extreme optical physics, where new regimes are expected to create revolutionary capabilities for the future warfighter.3 Four programs were reviewed: Atomic and Molecular Physics, Condensed Matter Physics, Quantum Information Science, and Optical Physics and Fields.
In general, the division’s metrics are strong, with 745 peer-reviewed publications in the FY 2016 to 2018 period, and funding for 279 graduate students and 113 postdoctoral researchers during the FY 2017 to 2018 period. There were 23 transitions reported for the 3-year period from FY 2016 to 2018, including
the transition of fundamental physics research funded by ARO to applications developed in the ARL intramural laboratories, which is another good indicator of the success of this program.
The overall scientific quality of the work presented was excellent, and in many cases was significantly innovative, being at or near the forefront of the relevant fields. From a management perspective, the research funding strategy appeared to be coherent and was clearly enunciated. The objectives were designed to promote critical advances in the fields of concern. The quality of research carried out under the auspices of the ARO-funded programs was excellent. However, it was difficult to evaluate the level of risk versus payoff, because only a few examples of failures (that is, where program objectives were not met) were given. Nonetheless, all of the presentations described results that were excellent, and in some cases outstanding. ARO is by no means the largest supporter of the work being done in the scientific areas described, but it has managed to benefit significantly from piggybacking onto larger programs. ARO benefits because even modest ARO funds can leverage the results of much larger programs.
Many of the research activities supported by ARO are in “hot” fields in which many other researchers are working. In the four fields mentioned above, there were two accomplishments cited that represent significant advances. This was the work done on super-radiant laser, and materials-agnostic demonstrations of the quantum anomalous Hall effect. It is likely that four other accomplishments will achieve breakthroughs: computing with neuromorphic dissipative quantum phase transitions, analyzing physical phenomena on topological surfaces, scaling up of trapped ion multiqubit systems, and exploitation of super symmetries in optics.
The basic research that ARO supports is expected to provide knowledge that will ultimately form the basis of applications for the Army. The time scale for that transition is expected to be anywhere from 5 to 25 years (or longer). It is very commendable, therefore, that some of the research now being supported by the Physics Division of ARO is already being transitioned to other agencies and to potential end users.
Some cross-disciplinary opportunities were noticed, and these are listed below along with associated recommendations.
Condensed matter physics depends on the discovery of new phenomena in existing materials, and on the observation and exploitation of known phenomena in new materials. The interaction between the condensed matter activities and the materials science activities that ARO sponsors is not close enough, although assurance was provided that the two relevant ARO PMs are in contact.
Recommendation: Army Research Office (ARO) program managers (PMs) should view condensed matter physics and materials science as parts of a larger whole and be proactive in stimulating connections between them. ARO management should encourage regular interactions between the ARO Physics Division condensed matter PM and the materials science PMs elsewhere to coordinate funding of multiple principal investigators (PIs). (Chapter 2)
Large advances in quantum information science are unlikely to occur unless there are correspondingly large advances in the development and analysis of algorithms. Little evidence was presented of any active engagement on algorithms between the Physics Division Quantum Information Science Program and its classical counterpart in the Information Sciences Division. This is a generic issue in modern information science. The expertise and collegial environment evident at ARO suggest that ARO could become a nexus for breakthroughs in understanding the quantum/classical algorithmic frontier.
Recommendation: Army Research Office (ARO) management should encourage interdivisional activity on the quantum/classical algorithmic frontier, using appropriate incentives like Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) grants. (Chapter 2)
Collaborations between researchers in condensed matter and materials science and between investigators working on quantum information and information science have led to significant accomplishments, but such collaborations among ARO programs appear to be the exception rather than
the rule. There is a growing recognition in the scientific community that the breakthroughs of the future are likely to occur in the boundaries between disciplines.
Recommendation: The Army Research Office (ARO) should consider exploring for the breakthrough opportunities that may exist in the boundaries between the disciplines and divisions it has traditionally supported. (Chapter 2)
A substantial number of the single investigator (SI) grants that ARO makes are to individuals in “hot” fields who are at the peaks of their careers, and consequently are also supported by other organizations. This approach to research support makes the exploration of the frontier move faster, as well as making the programmatic activities of these PMs more successful. However, this strategy shortchanges early-career investigators, more of whom need to be funded by ARO.
Recommendation: The Army Research Office (ARO) should seek a better balance between funding well-established and well-funded principal investigators (PIs) in “hot” disciplines and funding early-career investigators who are entering the “hot” fields or starting entirely new fields. (Chapter 2)
Chemical Sciences Division
The Chemical Sciences Division supports research to discover and understand the fundamental properties, principles, and processes governing molecules and their interactions in materials or chemical systems to provide the scientific foundation to create revolutionary capabilities for the future warfighter, such as new protective and responsive materials, sensors, and munitions.4 Four programs were reviewed: Reactive Chemical Systems, Electrochemistry, Molecular Structure and Dynamics, and Polymer Chemistry.
In general, the division’s metrics are strong, with 751 peer-reviewed publications in the FY 2016 to 2018 period, and funding for 354 graduate students and 171 postdoctoral researchers during the FY 2017 to 2018 period. However, most impressive for a program focused on outcomes for the Army was the number of successful transitions from bench to application. There were 56 transitions reported for the 3-year period from FY 2016 to 2018, including the development of several commercial products and start-ups based on the science and technology supported by the Chemical Sciences Division. The transition of fundamental chemical science research funded by ARO to applications developed in the ARL intramural laboratories is another good indicator of the success of this program.
Overall, the Chemical Sciences Division supports strong science and innovative research projects that have clear potential for improving the future performance of the Army. Notable examples of the impactful science funded by this division include the following: the development of melt-castable highly energetic materials made by co-crystallization; the design of self-regulating liquid crystals triggered by motile bacteria; the combinatorial synthesis and discovery of electrochemically active Perovskite materials; and the stabilization of biological materials using novel designer polymer coatings based on mapping of hydrophobic/hydrophilic regions on a targeted protein.
The Chemical Sciences Division programs fund many projects that are important to other funding agencies—for example, the development of catalysts, batteries, fuel cells, smart materials, and sensors. However, the overlap between the interests of ARO and other funding agencies seems to be working to the advantage of ARO, because these agencies enable ARO PMs not only to leverage large funding streams from other agencies but also to encourage PIs to pursue aspects of the projects they are working on that will be particularly relevant for the Army. For example, the division provided funding for
developing catalytic materials that could function in extreme environments that are particularly relevant for Army applications (large temperature swings or extremely dirty environments), and for evaluating methods for creating high-performance batteries and fuel cells that would not be of interest to the consumer market owing to cost. Army-specific batteries and fuel cells would not be developed commercially because of cost but are funded by ARO because Army requirements emphasize effectiveness over cost. The PMs were careful to evaluate potential projects based on the quality of the science and relevance to the interests of the Army; however, the Chemical Sciences Division might benefit from a more global perspective on the division’s priorities that could be provided by the formation of an external academic advisory group. Importantly, there was evidence of coordination with other DoD funding agencies to identify gaps in the combined research portfolios, to seek opportunities to work together to leverage funding streams, and to identify areas that specifically impact the Army versus other services for targeted investment.
The four program presentations outlined the collective efforts of researchers of significant stature who are working on an array of projects of varying degrees of risk. It is important that ARO fund the leaders in the fields it chooses to support so that the Army’s agenda will be pushed forward as fast as possible, but it must not ignore the need to identify and fund the next generation of leaders whose work in emerging fields may lead to breakthroughs that also impact the future Army. In that regard, a greater degree of funding directed toward new investigators in the field (STIR or SI grants) would be beneficial. It is important to use mechanisms like conference grants and STIR grants to identify and encourage high-risk/high-payoff research.
Overall, the research being supported by this division is innovative. However, the research conducted would benefit greatly if the interaction between theory/simulation and experiment was stronger. There is great value in the Chemical Sciences Division’s programs to support fundamental research, for the discovery of new science, and the development of new technologies for defense applications.
Life Sciences Division
The Life Sciences Division supports research efforts to advance the Army and nation’s knowledge and understanding of the fundamental properties, principles, and processes governing DNA, RNA, proteins, organelles, prokaryotes, and eukaryotes, as well as multispecies communities, biofilms, individual humans, and groups of humans. The interests of the Life Sciences Division are primarily in the following areas: biochemistry, neuroscience, microbiology, molecular biology, genetics, genomics, proteomics, epigenetics, systems biology, bioinformatics, and social science. The results of fundamental research supported by this division are expected to enable the creation of new technologies for optimizing warfighters’ physical and cognitive performance capabilities, for protecting warfighters, and for creating new Army capabilities in the areas of biomaterials, energy, logistics, and intelligence.5 Five programs were reviewed: Biochemistry, Genetics, Microbiology, Neurophysiology of Cognition, and Social and Behavioral Sciences.
In general, the division’s metrics are strong, with 624 peer-reviewed publications in the FY 2016 to 2018 period, and funding for 401 graduate students and 227 postdoctoral researchers during the FY 2017 to 2018 period. There were 30 transitions reported for the 3-year period from FY 2016 to 2018, including the development of commercial products. The transition of fundamental life science research funded by ARO to applications developed in the ARL intramural laboratories is another good indicator of the success of this program. However, the most impressive achievement was the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded to Dr. Frances H. Arnold of the California Institute of Technology for the directed evolution of enzymes. ARO’s Microbiology Program funded the work that led to the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for Dr. Arnold and has contributed to highly significant scientific advances.
It is somewhat surprising that the Life Sciences Division is a component of the physical sciences focus area of ARO. The division supports an extraordinarily broad range of subjects, which in academia would be housed in quite separate departments. The cross talk that occurs between the disparate projects supported by this division is proving to be extremely useful. However, because the number of people in the division is small, the programs it supports cannot encompass by any means the full range of subjects that might be relevant to the Army, and it needs to take advantage of all the leverage it can from other DoD agencies, in particular DARPA, to get the projects done that it has elected to support.
The overall quality of the five programs was judged to be very high, with strong and innovative projects in all of the programs. The emphasis is on basic research, although there was an impressive record of transitions of successful projects to customers. Many, but by no means all, projects were deemed to be high risk and high reward and would probably be too risky for funding from more conventional federal agencies like ARO. The panel saw a clear connection to future Army needs in the projects chosen.
The Life Sciences Division has a well-balanced portfolio that includes support of new investigators, who may be at particularly creative and innovative stages of their careers, as well as new directions for established investigators, through SI, STIR, and Young Investigator Program (YIP) funding. The emphasis is thus on important ideas that do not have enough data to support proposals to conventional funding organizations such as NIH. Here, the division could have a very positive impact on innovation, and this emphasis, which is already evident, needs to be encouraged. In several cases, the PMs funded pairs of PIs (not necessarily at the same institution) to work together on a single SI grant. This mechanism for crossing disciplinary boundaries to accomplish innovative studies has produced outstanding results. The division needs to continue to facilitate partnerships between pairs of investigators with diverse expertise through appropriate grant mechanisms.
Advances in the fields covered by the PSD increasingly rely on contributions made by scientists who have different areas of expertise. For example, in chemistry, combined efforts in modeling and experiment are often essential for significant advances. Similarly, progress in condensed matter physics often depends on collaborations between individuals skilled in materials synthesis and scientists pursuing new phenomena. In addition, all the physical sciences are increasingly relying on data analytics. The PSD currently has some selected examples where funding of pairs of researchers from different disciplines, working synergistically, has led to significant success. Priority could go to those who have a demonstrated history of successful collaborations. PMs could set priorities in terms of desired outcome and let researchers get together to make proposals.
Crosscutting Recommendation 1: The Physical Sciences Directorate (PSD) should encourage the funding of pairs of principal investigators (PIs) from different disciplines who will work together on common problems, including those that are interdivisional and interdirectorate. For the Physics Division, the Army Research Office (ARO) should consider collaborative projects that involve both materials synthesis and condensed matter physics, as well as joint quantum information algorithms and information sciences projects, which would all be interdirectorate. For the Chemical Sciences Division, ARO should consider modeling and experiment, which are both within the division. For the Life Sciences Division, ARO should consider mechanisms to allow data analytics to inform their explanatory models, which is also interdirectorate. (Chapter 5)
Many advances in science now occur at the boundaries between traditional disciplines, and consequently, multidisciplinary research has become increasingly important. This stretches the limits of traditional disciplines such as those found, for example, in university departments. The projects supported
by the Life Sciences Division of PSD encompass five disciplines in the biological and social sciences. The division is already multidisciplinary, even if not as much as it could be. By contrast, the Physics and Chemical Sciences Divisions are organized along more traditional disciplinary lines, and they seem to be having more difficulty broadening the boundaries of their disciplines, where the research being done crossed over into areas that they have not supported in the past. That kind of focus can miss many important new research developments.
Crosscutting Recommendation 2: The Physical Sciences Directorate (PSD) should explore mechanisms to identify and support research in areas that do not fall solely within its core disciplines, including those that rely on contributions from research areas that are not funded within these core disciplines at all. (Chapter 5)
The PMs within PSD currently do a good job of going to conferences and staying abreast of the exciting new work within their fields. They also do well in advertising their programs and interests to their own communities at such conferences. However, this highly targeted approach to publicizing the activities of ARO means that many members of the broader scientific community are unaware that ARO is a potential source of funding. That means that ARO is not seeing all the proposals from new PIs with different perspectives that it might. This limitation is of particular importance when it comes to attracting researchers in biology and other life science disciplines because a life scientist is very unlikely to think that an organization called Physical Sciences Directorate would be interested in what he or she does.
Crosscutting Recommendation 3: The Physical Sciences Directorate (PSD) should find ways to further disseminate the funding opportunities to the broader community. In particular, PSD should find ways to reach the broader biology and life sciences community, which is unlikely to realize the potential opportunities given the name of the directorate—Physical Sciences. (Chapter 5)
A major success of several PSD programs has been their funding of very early career investigators, for whom ARO funding has been their first, and for a period of time, their only source of funding. This kind of support can help launch careers. Also, graduate student and postdoctoral researcher training and integration into the research efforts at universities through ARO grants and contracts are essential both for ongoing research as well as for the workforce pipeline. Similarly, PSD funding can be particularly valuable for more established researchers who want to pursue new directions. In addition, funding often goes to well-established groups, where the ARO funding can be leveraged by large amounts of funding from other sources. This leverages the relatively small support from ARO, enabling the PMs to focus on that research specifically related to Army needs. ARO benefits because even modest ARO funds can leverage the results of much larger programs. However, there is also merit in funding new PIs doing different work, because this is also a good source of potential new research topics. Funding from PSD is particularly suitable for each of these groups of investigators because of the willingness of ARO to fund research that is not funded by other agencies, and because of the use of white papers as the initial stage of a proposal that makes the proposal selection process more efficient.
Also, the PSD research budget is small, and thus it cannot compete with other larger funding agencies. However, the strength of the PSD programs is the active interaction among the PMs to identify new areas for funding early, before they are generally recognized, and to act in concert with other DoD programs. Thus, there is an internal tension between the structure of the program into defined areas and efforts to find new areas. A PM who feels an obligation to continue funding in a defined area may be less willing to “give up” some of this funding to establish a new area. ARO could examine what can be done to make the formal organization of its programs less rigid and to prioritize new areas of opportunities with the highest potential leverage.
Since the PSD research budget is small and thus it cannot compete with other larger funding agencies, PSD could take advantage of facilities built, managed, and operated by other agencies such as x-ray, laser,
and neutron sources, as well as genomic facilities (i.e., DOE, DOC, and NIH). These facilities complement what can be provided by DoD laboratories and are necessary for advancing many of the science goals that are articulated for PSD.