Research officials outline funding process

  • Published
  • By William J. Sharp
  • Air Force Office of Scientific Research Public Affairs
Providing U.S. warfighters with a technological edge in battle is a huge responsibility and the staff of the Air Force Office of Scientific Research is actively involved in the process.

Each year, AFOSR program mangers evaluate thousands of basic research proposals received from scientists and researchers worldwide.

Each proposal is tied to a request for funding, and researchers are constantly in competition for a portion of the $400 million in funding managed by AFOSR program managers on behalf of the Air Force and the Air Force Research Laboratory.

"Our program managers consider promising projects taking place throughout American universities, the private sector, federal government and, in some cases, globally," said Dr. Thomas W. Hussey, AFOSR chief scientist. "With a staff of some 200 people, AFOSR supports more than 5,000 basic research projects worldwide critical to the defense of the United States."

"Our mission is to create revolutionary technological breakthroughs for the Air Force, armed forces, and the nation," said Dr. Brendan B. Godfrey, director, AFOSR. "We realize our funding decisions affect a great many people from researchers to citizens to warfighters. Because of these considerations, we take our work very seriously."

Program managers balance many factors in decision making including funding available; technological need and risk involved.

Lt. Col. Rhett Jefferies is one of some 40 AFOSR program managers. He works in the aerospace, materials, and chemistry sciences directorate. His area of focus is aerodynamics and flow. The directorate also is responsible for research in structural mechanics, materials, chemistry, fluid mechanics, and propulsion. Its mangers oversee more than 300 research projects. A portfolio of 30 to 35 funding grants keeps him busy.

"The first step in the funding process is a peer-review panel," Colonel Jefferies said. "Panelists must be experts in their respective fields and have no conflict of interest in serving on the panel."

Reviews normally involve two internal panelists and one external. Internal panelists are typically DoD scientists. External panelists can include experts from NASA, the National Science Foundation, and elsewhere. Panel members must be intimately familiar with the research area and able to provide advice and expertise in a broad range of areas.

"Panelists provide feedback on a proposal's technical merit and on opportunities for collaboration which are both very important in basic research," Colonel Jefferies said. "They also provide advice on funding. The feedback helps guide program managers and principal investigators - those that carry out the research - through the decision-making process."

Prospective grantees are encouraged to submit white papers or otherwise interact with the program manager to determine whether their research concepts are of interest to the Air Force before they go to the trouble of submitting proposals. Because any research topic could generate hundreds of proposals from interested researchers, panel reviews also help all involved stay focused on the direction of basic research.

"Panel members use a scale we provide to grade technical merit," said Colonel Jefferies. "There is a cutoff score involved and we don't recommend funding for projects that fall below the cutoff."

Annually, program managers review their portfolios for planning purposes. Based on the review, decisions can be made to add, modify, or discontinue research programs. Before decisions are made, reviewers typically seek collaboration with members of the scientific community. The needs of the Air Force are always of primary concern.

"About one third of our research portfolios are up for review each year, which helps us keep our workload manageable," Colonel Jefferies said. "We spend a lot of time collaborating with colleagues and experts from various scientific communities. So, to some degree, some of the risk of initiating new research is managed before we have to make a decision. Still, recommended decisions rest with program managers. So we are constantly evaluating research in order to make the best possible decisions."

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