ARL South—from a local perspective

September 06, 2017

By Joyce M. Conant, ARL Public Affairs

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (Sept. 6, 2017) -- The U.S. Army Research Laboratory announced the establishment of ARL South at a community meeting last fall. ARL South, part of the ARL Open Campus initiative, is an effort to co-locate Army research and development personnel in the south central U.S. to gain access to subject matter experts and technical centers and universities that are not well represented on the east coast. The site is co-located at The University of Texas at Austin's J.J. Pickle Research Center.

ARL South focuses on developing strong research and development partnerships and collaborative activities with regional universities, start-ups and established companies within Texas to include surrounding areas in New Mexico, Louisiana and Oklahoma to jointly fill technical gaps in the areas of biosciences, cybersecurity, energy and power, intelligent systems and materials and manufacturing to meet the needs of the Army's future force in an ever increasingly complex global environment.

"We are reaching out and building partnerships in regions of the country where there is a critical mass of first class research talent and infrastructure," said Heidi Maupin, ARL South regional director. "Austin and the entire state of Texas and surrounding areas has exactly that. This region has a strong reputation of innovation centers and successful start-up technical companies."

Dr. Robert Hebner, director of the Center for Electromechanics at The University of Texas at Austin said, "Part of the brilliance of the ARL South concept is that there is time to build an effective team of researchers before there is any major program. The team has an opportunity to develop important concepts and grow programs that have high potential for importance to the future Army."

When asked some of the pros and cons and lessons learned as host of ARL South, Hebner said, "Historically, much government-funded research has been focused on individuals or small teams within a single discipline. This is true for both internal and external programs, but the world is changing in ways that many problems are best solved by multi-disciplinary teams. The challenge is how to incentivize the formation of the right teams. NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology), when they were managing the Advanced Technology Program, learned that teams can be formed to write a proposal, but many of these prove ineffective in carrying out the work due to team dynamics."

Hebner provided an example to show this is not an unexpected outcome.

"I'm at The University of Texas at Austin, where we strive to be outstanding at academics, research and athletics. If I'm putting together a university golf team, I recruit the best golfers I can and help them get better individually. This is the approach the U.S. has used in much of its R&D funding. However, if I want to have a good football or basketball team, the players not only have to be good individually, but they succeed or fail on how effectively they work together. This is the analogy for multidisciplinary research. We would not expect a football team to win a big game with no practice, but we expect research success when the researchers have not developed as a team," Hebner said.

He said the value of the concept is firmly rooted in the experience of the research community.

"I recall a study that was conducted shortly after the closing of Bell Labs and the assignment of people to facilities operated by other units. People within many organizational units were no longer co-located, but dispersed geographically. The study found that collaboration was occurring more effectively geographically than within organizational units.

"In a similar vein, a few years ago, I served as the technical VP of the IEEE. I had formal meetings with groups of researchers in the Americas, Europe and Asia. These meetings were intended to understand how the global research enterprise was changing and what the IEEE could do that would support researchers. A universal answer was to find ways to bring together diverse groups of researchers to expand the range of contacts. They knew they needed to be part of strong teams.

"The ARL South concept is not about bricks and mortar. It's about motivating key relationships that improve ARL's effectiveness in supporting future warfighters. It benefits ARL, good research benefits the partners and dual use outcomes benefit the economy of the U.S.," Hebner said.

When asked how ARL South is working from his perspective, Hebner said the potential is huge, but the challenge is stimulating a significant culture change.

"For good historical reasons, university researchers view government laboratories as sources of funding. Similarly, government laboratory researchers tend to view collaboration with universities as limited, short term and useful if it advances their career and project.

"ARL South turns this process on its ear. It starts with the recognition that, in many important areas, significant progress requires significant team work. With the right team, job security, impact and funding will follow. For some in the universities and at ARL, this is an exciting recognition by ARL of the most effective way to be successful for the Army over the next few decades. These are the thought leaders who we are counting on for early success. The challenge is to find them and do the appropriate matchmaking," said Hebner.

Hebner understands the importance for ARL's approach to establish regional centers across the nation to enhance its S&T portfolio and explains his recipe for success.

"It seems to me this is the attitude we must have if the ARL regional organizations are going to meet their potential. Within both ARL and the participating universities, we need to recruit the best researchers to help develop a better way collaborate on important and interesting projects. Their success will draw others to the program.

"This path to success means that there must be successful collaboration between the regional ARL Director and one or a few effective leaders within the regional universities. To return to the sports analogy, we are trying to build one team by selecting researchers from two different effective teams. The ARL and university leaders have to be the coaches that see the potential for working together and explain it in a way that is compelling to both sides.

"The research teams make the progress, the breakthroughs and change the world. The task of the ARL and university leadership is to find, form and nurture the right teams. If we do that job well, success is inevitable," Hebner said.

The U.S. Army Research Laboratory, currently celebrating 25 years of excellence in Army science and technology, is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to provide innovative research, development and engineering to produce capabilities that provide decisive overmatch to the Army against the complexities of the current and future operating environments in support of the joint warfighter and the nation. RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command.


Last Update / Reviewed: September 6, 2017