The Office of Naval Research’s STEM Imperative

The Office of Naval Research’s STEM Imperative

The “loss of science and technology expertise is not just a Navy issue; it’s a national issue. It’s not that the numbers are going down; the United States is still continuing to raise young scientists and engineers. But, in the future, we expect that demand will grow faster than supply. For many years, non-US citizens would come to our great country and take advantage of the education system. That was a good thing because they would stay, typically, and that’s part of the strength of who we are. What you’re seeing now – one of the dynamics– is that, suddenly, more are going home. Places like India and China are more and more attractive for returning PhDs. So, there’s kind of a double whammy going on. Last year, for the first time, more than 50 percent of the PhD degrees awarded in this country in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) were awarded to non-US citizens,” commented Rear Admiral (RADM) Nevin Carr, Chief of Naval Research.

“And, those numbers will continue to rise every year at the PhD level,” according to Michael Kassner, PhD and Office of Naval Research (ONR) director of research, unless the United States mounts an aggressive domestic STEM workforce development strategy.

As such, Secretary of the Navy, the Hon. Ray Mabus, has designated Carr as the “point man” for the Navy’s STEM effort. “The first step was to look across the Navy to see who was doing what because many of our organizations have very good programs – NAVSEA, NAVAIR, NAVFAC and SPAWAR for instance. ONR has no corner on the market for wanting to inspire kids; we just have a more visible and significant share of this as a function of funding. Once we know more about our programs, we’ll see if we’re aligning for the Navy’s best effect. Finally, we need to figure out how we take on the difficult task of measuring return-on-investment.

“ONR invests about $40 million per year into inspiring young minds, with other Navy organizations investing additional funds. Collectively, our goal is to invest not only in America’s future through education, but also to encourage the best and the brightest to choose the Navy as a career. My job as the Department’s STEM lead is to synchronize these various efforts to see how we can get more out of them. No one organization can cover it all or solve the problem, but the Navy can make a difference. And, of course, we are most interested in attracting the right talent for the Navy, which is very high-tech,” comments Carr.

The Chief of Naval Research went on to explain that one of the dynamics that’s changed over time is state, military and private industry economics, influence and engagement. Historically, through various systems of taxation, a state had significant control over its citizens’ resources for, among other things, defense purposes. This led to new military technology breakthroughs such as the chariot, the catapult and the stirrup, which revolutionized military outcomes. Since the industrial revolution, but particularly within the past 20 years, private industry has taken off, with industry and commercial demand now driving things like computing and cell phone technology, and power and energy.

Historically, these processes would have been driven by defense demands, allowing the Department of Defense (DoD) to shape new technologies to its unique needs – with commercialization resulting after-the-fact. Now, in many cases, the reverse is true. As a result, the DoD now leverages what industry does in an open fashion. Therefore, it’s important that industry has talent. But the Navy is very high-tech too, with its ships and submarines, Super Hornets and equipment, and will become more so as it continues to move toward autonomy and off-board systems.

Growing a Domestic STEM Workforce

“The high-school graduate population is about 3.3 million kids and about 2.3 million attend some college. Of that population, fewer than half express an interest in majoring in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Of those – cut it in half again – about 470,000 actually graduate with a STEM bachelor’s degree. And that includes the ‘softer’ sciences like biology or the ‘ologies,’ which are important, but they’re not the ‘hard’ sciences that we need for advanced technology. Hard sciences comprise – cut it in half yet, again – about 230,000 students. And, only one-fourth of those actually obtain an advanced degree.

“In addition, for women seeking BS degrees in the general sciences and engineering fields, only about 30 percent are in the ‘hard’ sciences, which is just a further slicing of the relative share. And the minority piece of this drops substantially. The important component is to try to level things out so that the Navy, as the Chief Naval Officer (CNO) often says, looks more like the country. We’re not just targeting one part of the population,” explains Carr.

Kassner agrees with the importance of reaching underrepresented segments of the US and of investing in a sustainable STEM workforce. He comments that ONR has “a portfolio for basic research that is on the order of $600 million per year. That money goes principally to universities, and those programs are supporting graduate students. What we’re thinking about for the future is how we may exert some level of influence on the selection of those students. Should they be US born? For example, there’s a real concern by the National Academies that for America’s economic health we have to make sure we’re producing large numbers of STEM graduates, particularly those who are US born.



“While Professor and Department Chair at the University of Southern California (USC) in Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, I spent a significant amount of time counter-recruiting my Chinese faculty. Now that China is wealthier, they’re grabbing up America’s best Chinese faculty by offering them positions they simply cannot refuse. There is a virtual force, particularly for those who have received their undergraduate degrees in India and China, bringing Chinese and Indian students back to their respective countries. We’re going to have to rely increasingly for our STEM workforce in domestic students. What ONR would like to do is to emphasize domestic students and focus on underrepresented students – African-Americans, women and Hispanics.

“A domestic STEM workforce is, in general, important. But, a corresponding second objective, which is equally important, is to make sure that our STEM workforce reflects the diversity of America’s population. This is a fairly serious problem today, particularly given projected US demographics. Embracing and engaging America’s disenfranchised is critically important to us. One cannot forget that when we have a hugely disproportionate number of our STEM workforce being white males, those numbers are not sustainable. What’s really important is that we bring people into the STEM workforce who wouldn’t have originally been there. In order to accomplish this, best practices tell us that we need to pay more attention to and increase investment in middle schools. Furthermore, we need increased engagement in those areas not traditionally served by the Navy, such as Houston and Chicago.”

Investing at all Levels

“From SPAWAR in San Diego to NAVSEA in Washington, D.C., the Navy Enterprise has continually been engaged in STEM activities at all levels. That investment goes from early K-12 all the way to assistant professor level with no gaps between those two end-points. That’s probably unusual for a STEM activity, and I believe that’s going to have its advantages,” comments Kassner.

As lead coordinator for Naval STEM, ONR has gathered data from all Naval organizations engaged in STEM activities and incorporated it into a web-based STEM information portal, This portal allows anyone in the United States to sort these programs based on their geographic proximity.

Kassner believes that “if you drop a student prior to educational maximization or fulfillment, he or she may be lost. So, this is one advantage the Navy has. Because our portfolio is so wide and because we have a centralized coordinating facility and a website, we have a tiering system. Our spectrum of programs runs from lower school through graduate and post-graduate school. The Young Investigator Program, for example, is very good, and on the higher levels we have scholarships, internships and fellowships.”



Carr describes the Navy’s impact on American education: “As I travel the country to give talks on science and technology at universities, I’m constantly approached by scientists and PhDs who say ‘the Navy invested in me 15 years ago. I got my start from you, and I never forgot it.’ They may not come to work for the Navy, but America is better as a result of our educational investment in them. And, they have the Navy in mind as they do their research. Education is a very powerful tool.”

Another example of ONR’s life-changing educational influence is their Apprentice Program, which, according to Kassner “is an institutionalized high school student internship program. The student will go to a Navy laboratory, spend a summer in a scientific capacity and be paid for it. We receive applications from all over the US, and then we match them to the different Navy laboratories so that the person’s interest, geographic and scientific preferences are all matched. Unfortunately, we have more requests than we can fulfill. However, with respect to this and other Navy STEM opportunities, the ONR public website will allow for one-stop shopping to educate the student on all Navy STEM activities.”

A year ago, the Navy’s K-12 outreach was centered on Navy laboratories and facilities, which means that some geographic areas were not covered. This weakness was recently rectified, as the Navy now engages in K-12 programs in Los Angles, St Louis, Oakland, Baltimore and New York inner-cities, where Naval facilities and laboratories do not exist.

Paying Attention to the ‘Sweet Spot’



Regarding Chicago and other cities across the country, Carr maintains that “we have to focus on the junior high schools – 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th graders – because by the time students are in high school, they’ve probably made up their mind regarding their educational goals. And, by the time they are in college, the pyramid is already too narrow. It’s the teachers in junior high school who are the key, I believe, to accomplishing change. You have to build in incentives on that level so the best and the brightest will want to be inspired – not only the teacher who inspires his/her students, but the student who becomes inspired.

“At the lower level, our efforts are primarily targeted at generating interest in STEM majors. We have something called the ‘Sea Perch’ program, where we send kits to schools – all the materials provided – and the students use the materials to build a self-propelled underwater submersible. They can build it in several ways and then compete among themselves. I think this kind of hands-on, applications-oriented learning is where we really need to be focused.” Sea Perch has formed a partnership with the 4H Clubs in Minnesota to allow Navy STEM to reach rural areas in that state.

Kassner agrees with Carr that “the important ‘sweet spot’ is middle school. Our best practices tell us that we need to expand our outreach in this area. But, I think our chance of success in transitioning these students to scientific careers requires close and constant contact. It’s important that engagement in middle schools be the right kind of engagement – more hands-on and more consistent. A constant engagement will increase the probability of them selecting a STEM career. We want to keep the current secondary and post-secondary portfolio, but we believe we’ll have the greatest impact if we start putting additional resources into middle schools.

“In addition, when you work with middle schools, curriculum can also be an issue. It’s important to work with the school districts. When I was at USC, I noticed there may have been a little more flexibility within the Los Angeles school system. We worked in a way that our programs became melded within the curriculum. We built hands-on projects with the highest probability of engaging students. That’s one of the reasons why it’s important to work closely with the teachers. And we also coordinate ONR programs with the DoD and other military services so that the left hand knows what the right hand is doing.”

Competing for Talent

Make no mistake; the Navy is competing for talent at all ages. And, unfortunately, according to Carr, “There’s not enough to go around. So, we have to try to expand the talent pool. Sometimes it’s about funding research by funding people. ONR has a tradition of betting on the person, which is not the case in all government-funded science. Oftentimes, other organizations are more rigidly bound to the research item with specific deliverables. It has always been an ONR focus to look more at the person – to look at the scientist – with an understanding that good research will generally come from good people. As an example, we had a Nobel Laureate here just a few months ago who originally received his funding from ONR.”

In fact, according to Kassner, ONR has funded 61 Nobel Prize winners and was the defacto National Science Foundation until the mid-1950s. One of ONR’s many funded projects includes ultra-sonic imaging, later used for breast cancer research, which began as algorithms for processing submarine detection. According to Carr, “We’re always looking for dual-use and transition opportunities in the projects that we fund. The breast cancer research opportunity is one that matched up.”



Carr continues to say that “once we have our internal STEM investment picture built, and we think about synchronizing to maximize effect, we’ll also look closely at how to measure our return-on-investment. It might make more sense to eliminate some programs and focus more on others – maybe include something like ‘sign on the dotted line’ and the Navy will fund your education from freshman through PhD if you give us 10 years. We don’t know that yet, but these are the type things we’ll be looking at.

“‘In the Navy’ also means working with the Navy in a research lab or civilian career. That might mean a PhD at USC doing Navy-related work since that person would still be benefitting the Navy. Not everyone is in-house. A lot of our work goes out to about 3,000 different touch-points in academia and industry, and, through them, to another 3,000 graduate students. So, we ‘ink blot’ out in addition to our own in-house labs. But it takes talented people to manage that within the Navy.”

Mentoring as an Effective Strategy

Carr also believes that “mentoring is very important. When I was a Lt. Commander about 20 years ago, the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) had a mentoring program that I signed up for. The kids signed up to be mentored, and the school system would bus them in from downtown every Thursday. We’d each spend a couple of hours per week with our kids – who were from the inner-city – doing math, and then we’d end up talking about a whole range of things. I loved it. I’m interested in starting something similar at ONR because we have so much talent here that could benefit so many kids.

“The Navy Research Lab (NRL) does a similar program with their 3,000 folks and about 900 PhDs. They have relationships with schools, as well, where they bring kids in, and they go out to schools. It’s very powerful and tends to be very targeted. Something like this goes beyond STEM too; it gives these kids a caring person to fill a void. In addition, we have a fairly well orchestrated flag officer educational outreach program that we may look to integrate with our STEM program to make it part of the speaking circuit that we do. I just spoke at a high school about six months ago – my high school – and we had a lot of response on that. Again, it was very powerful.”

Kassner, too, believes in the power of mentoring, “When I was in Chicago I was a math tutor for an inner-city child. I mentored her for a middle school mathematics class. Mentoring is a powerful experience that can have a profound impact on both participants.”

Understanding the Bottom Line



Carr maintains that “STEM educational advancement and support is critically important to the country, to the Navy and to anyone who’s going to rely more and more on science and technology for the future. We’re putting a lot of effort into making the most out of the Navy’s investments.”

Kassner agrees. “For scientists in general, we’re very sensitive to the fact that there will be a shortage of scientists in the United States. You’ll find the scientific community in general, not just the Navy and Admiral Carr, to be very supportive of STEM educational advancement,” he maintains.

“There will always be a need for Navy personnel who are not science and technology-based, but the mix is changing. As crews get leaner and leaner, members need to be more technically adept. Our job is to organize, to equip and to train the very best Navy we can. That’s what the taxpayers pay us to do. That’s front and center, but that doesn’t mean we don’t recognize that there’s a greater issue here. We understand that every dollar we put into outreach and education isn’t going to return to the Navy. Much of our investment is going to go somewhere else – providing a benefit on the backside for the country as a whole,” concludes Carr.