U.S. Department of Defense

On the prowl. The U.S. military needs to step up efforts to recruit and retain the scientists and engineers who have provided it with cutting edge technologies, such as these Marine Corps AV-8 Harrier jet fighters.

U.S. Military Should Find a Way to Hire Foreign Scientists and Engineers, Report Says

David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

The U. S. military should consider revising rules that now exclude hiring foreign-born scientists and engineers and make its work more attractive to potential employees, according to a new study on meeting its future workforce needs.

There is broad agreement that first-rate scientists and engineers have helped make the U.S. military one of the most potent fighting forces in the world, notes the report from the U.S. National Academies' National Research Council and the National Academy of Engineering that was requested by the Department of Defense (DOD). But that edge has become harder to maintain. The pace of technological innovation has quickened, national security threats have shifted, and the competition for technical workers has globalized. At the same time, an aging U.S. population means that many DOD researchers who came of age during the heyday of the Cold War are nearing retirement, and fewer potential replacements—students who have the U.S. citizenship papers that would help qualify them for a job in the military—appear interested in going into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

The good news for DOD, however, is that it is not facing an immediate STEM workforce crisis, says C. Daniel Mote Jr., the former University of Maryland, College Park, president who co-chaired the 18-month-long study with former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine. "It was very hard to find anyone who said that there is a workforce shortage, except in a few areas such as cybersecurity and intelligence; the real issue is not numbers, it is how to maintain the quality of the workforce." The report notes, however, that "the historical record of forecasting the number of scientists and engineers needed to work in national security has been abysmal at best," so problems could appear suddenly.

The report suggests that DOD focus on meeting its own special workforce needs rather than trying to improve the overall quality of STEM education in the United States. "DOD needs to concentrate on solving its own problem, not the country's problem," Mote says. DOD now employs just about 2% of the total U.S. STEM workforce, the report notes, and is "a small and diminishing part of the nation's overall science and engineering enterprise. One consequence is that DOD cannot significantly impact the nation's overall STEM workforce-and therefore, with a few exceptions, DOD should focus its limited resources on fulfilling its own special requirements for STEM talent."

Some practical steps that the Pentagon can take to recruit and retain top talent include adjusting compensation levels and streamlining hiring and security clearance practices in order to make DOD "fully competitive" with more nimble industry and academic employers. And it could also "ring fence" employees and positions that it considers particularly important, protecting them from budget cuts, layoffs, and hiring freezes.

A more ambitious recommendation is for the Pentagon to sponsor "unconventional" research and engineering projects that offer "exciting, challenging and highly attractive opportunities" to potential workers. The problem, Mote says, is that as the Pentagon buys fewer large weapons systems, DOD workers have fewer opportunities to hone their technical and leadership skills solving big, complicated problems. But a series of smaller, challenging projects—perhaps modeled after prize competitions for developing "disruptive" technologies, or Lockheed Martin's famed "Skunk Works" facility that pioneered futuristic spy planes and supersonic aircraft—could help build esprit de corps, he says. "We felt very strongly about the unconventional programs idea," Mote says. "It's been shown over and over again that the idea of working on a challenging project is a very attractive recruiting tool."

Mote said the panel spent "a lot of time" discussing its recommendation that DOD try to hire more non-U.S. citizens for STEM jobs. Currently, the Pentagon limits most STEM positions to U.S. citizens, in large part as a result of security clearance requirements. But that restriction means DOD can't directly tap a rising tide of foreign talent, including those who could like to become U.S. citizens.

To break the logjam, the panel says, DOD should "reexamine the need for security clearances in selected positions in order to permit non-U.S. citizens to enter the STEM talent pool … under tailored circumstances." The U.S. Department of Energy, it notes, already has programs that give foreign scientists jobs and clearances if they commit to obtaining U.S. citizenship; DOD could start with similar efforts. The panel also called for expanding the number of visas available for highly skilled technical workers, "to provide the nation and the DOD with a substantially larger pool of extraordinary talent in areas of need."

Mote concedes that the foreign hiring recommendation may be difficult to implement. "There is a feeling that this is a very steep hill to climb," he says. A host of laws and regulations would need to be changed, he says, steps that are "out of the hands of DOD."

Pentagon officials are still reviewing the report, a Pentagon spokesperson wrote to ScienceInsider in an e-mail. And Mote says it is unclear "whether the department as a whole will want to take this on in a big way" as it struggles with impending budget cuts and other issues. "These are some rather big changes we are talking about," he says. "But it's clear that DOD needs to be more assertive and prepared to compete for its STEM workforce."

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