Monday, August 6, 2012

Defense labs want more scientists? How about paying them better?

In this week's C&EN, an interesting overview of defense-related US government/military laboratories by Andrea Widener:
As he shows off a flexible screen on the sleeve of a camouflage uniform, Morton estimates that the Army lab’s investment has sped development of the flexible displays by five years. “We are successful in the sense that there will be commercial technology this year that the Army will be able to buy,” he says. 
That success is just the kind the Department of Defense seeks from its nearly $75 billion-per-year science and technology enterprise, which is larger than all other federal R&D programs combined. Its internal research labs and contracts with universities and industry all focus on developing the science and technology that the military will need in the future. 
But DOD is facing changes now that could make designing future technologies more challenging. Shifting military goals, a decreasing overall defense budget, and the globalization of science will all alter DOD’s approaches to science and technology. The very nature of the agency’s mission—its size and bureaucracy, its need for secrecy, and its importance to the U.S.—also colors its future. Charting a path where its basic and applied research can quickly be turned into arms or aircraft or armor will, in part, define whether DOD’s R&D is successful.
I found this section on getting a better sense of other nations' military-oriented science very interesting:
Some in Congress would rather not see cooperation between the U.S. and its rival countries, especially China, particularly on research with potential national security implications. But nowadays any researcher not working with scientists abroad would be missing out on what could be important research developments, Hummel says.  
The Office of Naval Research Global, the military’s main outreach arm to the global scientific community, has posts and scientists on five continents. But more needs to be done to make sure DOD is connected to scientists worldwide, he says. “We have got to get much better than we are today at dealing with the ubiquity of knowledge discovery,” Hummel explains. “Europe is probably doing better, and China is unequivocally doing better.” 
That's an interesting and delicate dance to have to perform, but being blind to advances in science elsewhere is really not a good idea. I found this section to be interesting, to say the least:
Globalization is also causing problems with recruiting and retaining the right people to work on military problems. “I was worried when I was in charge, and I still worry now: Are we getting the talent pool that is both technically really talented and can get clearance?” Rees says, pointing out that he is especially concerned about recruiting high-quality engineers. 
Chabalowski says that the Army Research Lab is recruiting great staff, but “some of the best and brightest we just can’t get” because they are not U.S. citizens. “It’s that simple. “When you look at the population in graduate school in science, technology, engineering, and math, it is overwhelmingly foreign nationals,” Chabalowski continues. “And we would love to tap into that.” The ability to recruit noncitizens will have to be authorized by Congress, which will need to pass legislation to fast-track citizenship for newly minted science Ph.D.s. 
Here's my thought process on this last point by Dr. Chabalowski:
  • Passing fast-track citizenship for newly minted science Ph.D.s seems like a potentially unwise move and a really kludgey way to get better scientists and engineers into the military research establishment. 
  • Relying on citizenship as a first-pass proxy for "will not betray the US government's secrets" seems really unwise as well. The Walker spy ring and Aldrich Ames were all US citizens. 
If the US government wants to recruit better domestic scientists into the military research complex, they can do it easily: promise them interesting problems (not an issue, I suspect), offer them more stability and freedom than the private sector might be able to provide and pay their scientists better. Simple as that (okay, that last one wasn't simple.) 


  1. Another major issue is making these job postings more visible to newly graduated Ph.D scientists. I've actively looked for defense lab postings, and they're often hard to find, and have confusing application requirements. Most postings include something like "In addition to meeting the basic requirement applicants must meet one year of specialized experience equivalent to the GS-11 grade level or higher." I have no idea what that means.

    Also, unlike the DoE labs, I've never seen recruiters from a DoD lab at a career fair, even though there's a large DoD lab much closer to my current university than any DoE labs.

    It's hard to recruit scientists without actually putting effort into, you know, recruiting...

    1. In the same vein, it is hard to get a job without actually putting any effort into, you know, learning...

      Sorry for turning your words back on you, but if a job application has requirements you are unfamiliar with, there are ways to find out what these mean whether it be an internet search or a friendly email to someone at the institution you are applying to. When I have done this, people have always been more than willing to explain in detail what these qualifications are.

    2. I think it's fair that applicants go the extra mile to learn about job postings.

      That said, I think US government job postings have their own obscure language, and it's not completely outlandish that graduate students and postdocs have some trouble navigating it.

  2. I've been following job openings in these labs because it's relevant to my dissertation work. They aren't hiring PhDs. They're looking for BS and MS grads with experience. And they're doing it via defense contractors and recruiting agencies, instead of via USAJobs. I've applied for a number of them, but, as with everything else, haven't heard squat.

    1. As with most things, blame Congress. From my friend at one of these labs (who just hired a new PhD synthetic chemist in lieu of two BS/MS chemists) there is major uncertainty due to the potential budget cuts on the horizon. Because they do not have any confidence in their budget for the next few years, hiring is difficult.

    2. Before sequestration, it was BRAC. Being a DOD scientist hasn't been a good gig for quite a while.

  3. Well, just in case nobody knew exactly where American scientists stand in employers' eyes; "some of the best and brightest we just can’t get because they are not U.S. citizens." The best interpretation of that is "if you're American and willing to work for what the Chinese will, THEN we'll hire you." The worst is "if you're American, you're dumb and we won't hire you." Any C&E execs care to promulgate sacrificing your own personal interests for love of country on this one?

  4. "we just can’t get” because they are not U.S. citizens. “It’s that simple."

    It's not that simple. Becoming an American citizen does not always mean that the original citizenship is automatically stripped, and renouncing it is quite a process in some places. Getting even basic clearance is harder, particularly if the family is still overseas, and it will severely limit the ability to visit them. Getting higher levels of clearance is even harder, which negatively impacts prospects of advancement. So even with an American passport in hand DoD labs are not always an attractive proposition for foreign-born scientists.

  5. In response to andre’s comment above, about contacting someone in the institution that you are applying to when there is something about the applications process that is unfamiliar – this is decent advice when applying to a private firm. However, if you have ever applied for a federal job, the entire hiring process is Byzantine, from start to finish.

    The basic issue is that the federal HR people completely control the process, from how many openings there will be, to what degrees they are looking for, to the qualifications listed on the job announcement, to who makes it through the first cut. The actual technical supervisors, though they have some say in the matter, do not have final say on any of this, the HR people do. And the HR people do not have technical backgrounds, which further complicates the process for anyone applying for an opening.

    That being said, there are still things a person can do to navigate this arena:
    1) look for jobs as government contractors. They are full-time jobs with full-time benefits. Frankly, the DoD relies on the big defense contractors, as well as smaller ones, for most of their technical work; 2) if applying to a federal job, get one of the ‘How to Apply for a Federal Job’ guideline books. They do a pretty good job of explaining the federal application process; 3) if a job announcement looks overly specific, with minute details about educational and work experience needed just for the minimal qualifications, and there is only one opening (called a ‘vacancy’), then this likely is not a true opening. It’s either for a current federal employee who is up for a promotion, or they have already picked out the person who they are going to hire.

    On another note - How is it that C & E News is always able to find the one person in these federal agencies who just can’t seem to find Americans to hire?

    1. Strange how every job posting at at USAJOBS gives contact info for someone in the specific agency hiring. Many times a specific person is listed. Byzantine I know. Often these people are extremely generous in answering any questions about the process because there may be terminology you might not be familiar with. You can also find people who can help you on the websites of specific agencies or laboratories if your Google-fu is at the white belt level.

      As to your second paragraph, I can only consider this (pardon my language) as total horseshit. Laboratory PIs or the equivalent have very large amounts of input into the hiring process. With my hiring at a DOE national lab, I only talked to HR as a formality after verbally agreeing to the position with the PI. The listings go through HR as they do at practically every job. There can be limitations put on by budgets and there might be back and forth between budget and the PI or lab head. Like much of industry, the sheer numbers of applications may mean that HR departments do a first cut, but in no way do they completely control the process.

      I do agree mostly with points 1 and 2 you make in your third paragraph. Contracting is a great opportunity especially in times of budget issues (like now... and always), plus it can be a great foot in the door for future jobs. Go to your local library for those Federal employment books.

      I know I sound like a Fed shill, but the government gets a bad rap. My number one piece of advice if you want to work as a scientist in government is to make a contact at the agency or laboratory you want to work at. Be polite and interested and you'll find someone who can help you.

    2. I agree mostly with Andre. From what I've seen, HR does not have much to say unless there are qualified candidates who belong to certain groups. And hiring managers write the qualifications, which is why some of them are so specific and narrow...there's often an internal candidate. No HR person would know where to begin with such a thing.

      However, I disagree about opportunities coming from contract work. I see a lot of "retired" scientists who are now contractors, but I know of no staff scientists who used to be contractors. That could just be my little corner of the gov't, however.

  6. Instead of giving American citizenship fast to people with PhDs, why don't they just hire the foreigners? From a country with which the US already shares all the secret agency data with. Would not be that hard to get clearance since if you try to sell any secret info back to your home country, they would put you in jail and ship you back to the States. Unfortunately, this doesn't include China or India, but Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand will enlarge the applicant pool somewhat. Of course, those countries might not be happy at the DoD stealing their educated citizens themselves.