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Young scientists, engineers departing DoD

Apr. 1, 2014 - 05:52PM   |  
By AMBER CORRIN   |   Comments
Recent budget instability may be costing DoD the next generation of scientists and engineers.
Recent budget instability may be costing DoD the next generation of scientists and engineers. (Conrad Johnson/RDECOM Public Affairs)

Spending on Defense Department science and technology is relatively stable, but the sector’s workforce is taking a hit after months of budgetary uncertainty and the ripple effects of sequestration’s across-the-board cuts implemented last year.

Military S&T lost nearly $1 billion in the fiscal 2013 budget, and though fiscal 2014 and 2015 agreements attempt to restore some of the Budget Control Agreement’s reductions, recovery is slow-going. As a result, the Pentagon is prioritizing modernization, but top officials worry about their workforce, where signs point to troubling uncertainty among DoD’s best and brightest.

“We saw a number of young scientists and engineers leave in 2013, early in their career,” Alan Shaffer, acting assistant defense secretary for research and engineering, told a House Armed Services subcommittee March 26. “In conducting exit interviews, our laboratory directors reported that these young workers consistently cited travel and conference restrictions, as well as perceived instability of a long-term career as motivating factors for their departure.”

Shaffer said in his prepared testimony that the average age of scientists and engineers in the government is rising. From 2011 to 2013, the average age of scientists rose from 45.6 to 45.7, and of engineers from 43.2 to 43.9. Although the increases are slight, they are a reversal of the previous trend of a workforce growing younger through new hires, according to his testimony.

“In 2013, there were only 731 new hires in the S&T functional community, whereas in 2010 there were 1,884,” he stated in the testimony. “In 2010, retiring workers were retirement-eligible for an average of only 4.1 years. From 2011 to 2013, that average grew to 4.5 years. The trend indicates that we may not be replacing our seasoned employees with enough young scientists and engineers who will shape our future. This could be an indicator of older employees working longer because of a down economy or it could be an indicator that we are not hiring or retaining enough young scientists and engineers.”

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Furloughs and the government shutdown in 2013, coupled with sequestration’s aforementioned restrictions and hiring freezes, are harmful to the health of the workforce – and the effects are only just beginning to be understood, Shaffer indicated.

In S&T, budgetary focus has shifted to keeping pace with emerging technological threats. The fiscal 2015 request for $11.5 billion is about 4 percent less than fiscal 2014, but particular areas are receiving a boost as officials call for specialized, high-tech research and development. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, for example, is being funded at the same level in fiscal 2015 as it was in fiscal 2014. Shaffer pointed out.

“One of the key points for S&T of the fiscal 2015 budget is a shift in focus at the macro scale from basic research to advanced technology development, and a shift from the services to DARPA to develop advanced capabilities,” Shaffer testified.

That’s enough to put DARPA “on the right track,” according to the agency’s director, Arati Prabhakar. She said that DARPA saw small budget reductions from fiscal 2009 to fiscal 2013, but when combined with sequestration the cuts totaled some 20 percent in that timeframe.

“This pernicious trend turned around last year,” Prabhakar said in her March 26 HASC testimony. “In the current fiscal year, the partial restoration of funds is making a real difference in DARPA's ability to attack the thorny problems the nation faces in today’s military and national security environment.”

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