Defense Dept. and Air Force plan a research center led by an HBCU 

There are 11 schools that are eligible to compete for the university-affiliated research center, the first at a Black college.

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A new university-affiliated research center — or UARC — is on its way to being created at a historically Black college or university. While it is the Defense Department’s 15th UARC, it is the first to be associated with an HBCU. It is also the first to be associated with the Air Force. 

“This is an opportunity to tap into universities that have an enormous amount of capability in science and technology,” Frank Kendall III, Air Force secretary, said during a briefing Monday at the Pentagon, according to a press release from the Department of Defense

A new university-affiliated research center is on its way to being created at a historically Black college or university, the first to be associated with an HBCU. (Photo: U.S. Department of Defense)

The DOD and Air Force are looking to tap into the talent pool of the nation’s African American science, technology, engineering and mathematics students, 30% of whom graduate from HBCUs. 

“This nation must have a strong national STEM workforce since the future of our national security is dependent on our ability to grow our STEM talent,” said Heidi Shyu, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering. “We’ll only accomplish this through the cultivation of a highly diverse workforce. Diversity of background and a diversity of ideas has always been the strength of this country … We must tap into the HBCUs to grow a well-educated and well-trained workforce for the Department of Defense and this nation.”

Each of the other UARCs has a set of core research competencies designed to meet the long-term needs of the Defense Department. Among the 14 existing centers are the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. 

The first UARC at an HBCU will be focused on research into “tactical autonomy,” which means “autonomous systems acting with delegated and bounded authority of humans in support of tactical, short-term actions associated with a longer-term strategic vision,” says the Air Force Research Laboratory. Current UARCs are not providing that research to the department, Kendall said.

The Defense Department is “very focused on the threat of Chinese military modernization and what that means in terms of the viability of our forces,” he said. “Part of the future of the military is going to be autonomy. There’s no doubt in my mind … we’re seeing increasing evidence of that almost in every conflict that that occurs … it’s here to stay, and we need to be at the front edge of that. This is an opportunity to tap into universities that have an enormous amount of capability in science and technology.”

The chosen HBCU will compete to serve as the lead school for the UARC.

There are currently 11 HBCUs that have a Carnegie Foundation Research Classification of R2, and there are no HBCUs with the designation of R1 — or “very-high research activity.” The primary goal of the UARC will be to provide valuable research, and its secondary goal will be to help the school build its research capacity, meaning that the chosen school may become an R1.

The eligible schools are Prairie View A&M, Southern University and A&M, University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Tennessee State University, North Carolina A&T, Morgan State University, Florida A&M, Clark Atlanta University, Jackson State University, Howard University and Texas Southern University. 

“Through this effort,” said Victoria Coleman, chief scientist of the Air Force, “we’re hoping to ensure that at least one, if not more, institutions become R1.”

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