U.S. Air Force Photo/Bruce Liddil

Moving target. Some researchers are worried by a proposal to move the U.S. Air Force’s basic research division to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. It is already home to parts of the Air Force Research Laboratory, which helped develop this virtual reality training system, on display at a 2010 conference.

Proposed Move of Air Force Science Office Threatens Basic Research, Scientists Say

Universities, research organizations, and researchers are up in arms because the U.S. Air Force is mulling a plan to move its basic research office to a base in Ohio that houses the branch’s research headquarters and Air Force–operated labs. Critics of the proposed move say that it could shift the Air Force’s research emphasis toward applied work while hurting basic research that they argue has long-term value for the military.

The proposed move would shift the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), which funds basic research into aerospace-related disciplines, from Arlington, Virginia, to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. AFOSR would occupy the same military base as the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), which runs the Air Force’s research programs and labs.

At stake, opponents of the proposed move argue, is how the Air Force will spend AFOSR’s funding, for which Congress approved $525 million in 2014. Being located on the same base as AFRL would hurt AFOSR’s culture and thus its basic research, they argue, at a time when the military has already had to cut research and development funding. The potential move could “lead to a change in the thrust of AFOSR’s funding from basic research at universities to applied research at Air Force laboratories,” says a letter to the Air Force from officials at 15 universities, including the California Institute of Technology and the University of Maryland.

Daryl Mayer, a Wright-Patterson base spokesman, confirms in a statement to ScienceInsider today that Air Force commanders are considering the move. But he adds that they have not made any decisions yet and that the Air Force first plans to conduct a preliminary study of the move’s benefits and costs.

It’s still unclear what motivated the idea or when the Air Force first devised it. But tensions between the research community and the Air Force emerged earlier this month, when the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers issued a letter decrying the then-unannounced proposal. More scientific organizations and researchers joined the chorus after late last week, when the Air Force research program issued a notice asking the research community to comment within 5 days on how important they felt AFOSR’s location was to its basic research mission. (The deadline was today.)

The notice didn’t spell out any specific proposals to move the agency. Still, scientists and research institutions have responded to the notice by criticizing the proposed move.

For starters, it’s likely that many AFOSR employees would not move to Wright-Patterson, Malcolm Beasley, president of the American Physical Society (APS), told the Air Force in a letter this week. These officials may be replaced by AFRL staffers who are experts in applied research but “have little or no experience in basic research,” he wrote. That means that applied research experts would help make funding decisions for basic research, says Richard Zare, a physical chemist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who has done research with AFOSR funding in the past. These officials may have a different idea of what makes a worthy research project. “You could have a refocusing of the [research] effort toward near-term applications as opposed to long-term opportunities,” he suggests.

Although basic aerospace research in areas like atmospheric chemistry and aerodynamics doesn’t pay technological dividends right away, it leads to new technologies for the Air Force in the long term, Zare argues. He says that the refocusing could occur even though Congress set aside specific amounts for each area of research in the Air Force’s purview in 2014—$525 million for basic research through AFOSR, $1.15 billion for applied research, and $637 million for advanced technology development, according to APS. Zare contends that the line between what “basic” and “applied” is blurry.

Critics of the move also favor AFOSR’s current location in Arlington because other research funding agencies—including the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—are just down the road. Moving AFOSR to Wright-Patterson would make it tougher for AFOSR to collaborate with its civilian counterparts, Beasley says.

AFOSR referred questions from ScienceInsider to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The statement from Mayer, the Wright-Patterson spokesman, didn’t respond to ScienceInsider’s requests for comment on opponents’ specific complaints, except to say that “it would be premature to speculate about the possible findings [for the cost-benefit study] while information is still being gathered.”

Posted in Scientific Community