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Federal R&D Is Broken: The Digital Transformation – Part 2

Bottom Line Up Front: Federal R&D spending has lagged tremendously behind commercial industry, causing Government technology to fall very far behind.

Where We Left Off

In yesterday’s blog entry, we began going over this article and noticed that Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord is tearing down Federal acquisitions so it can be rebuilt again. Today we find out why.

What Ellen Lord Wanted

From yesterday’s article, here it is in her own words.

I came to the Department of Defense (DoD) in August 2017 to improve the way we deliver capability to our warfighters. In particular, we needed to transform the way the department, the services, and our industrial base partners realize and field capability with software.

To improve how we deliver stuff to the soldiers.

What was wrong with it?

A couple of things. For one, it takes FOREVER to deliver anything. Eight years is the average, and sometimes it takes a decade or two! Delivering technology on a decades-long schedule is catastrophically bad!

Also, R&D is broken

We all have this idea that the Government spends mountains of money in crazy secret science, right? Space lasers and whatnot. Well, it turns out that’s not true. It used to be, 60 years ago, but not anymore.

Turns out private businesses have far, far outstripped Federal R&D spending. By a lot.

When you compare how the Government used to fund R&D with the way it funds it today, it’s just terrible. Back in the Space Race days, the US did own the lion’s share of R&D, but that was forever ago! Today, the hot new science comes from the commercial world.

Graph showing how the Federal share of R&D has fallen precipitously

What does that mean?

It means that back in the old dinosaur days, the US Government did rule science and R&D. Back in ye olden days, the Feds invented GPS and the Internet and the transistor, but that was a million years ago. Today, the US Government barely moves the needle in R&D spending. All the hot new stuff is coming out of private industry.

The danger is that the US Government will get left behind and lag with old, obsolete technology that takes a decade to develop while everybody else – including our adversaries – leaves us in the dust.

But can’t the government just buy commercial tech?


It can’t.

Not according to the acquisition rules. The rules that Ellen Lord inherited were a Gordian knot of regulations and red tape that effectively kept out all that tech.

For a Silicon Valley company to become a Federal supplier, there is a mountain of red tape and years of bureaucracy that need to be fulfilled. Most companies don’t even bother. And the companies who try just give it up soon after.

Oh wow, that’s terrible!

Yes. That is why Ellen Lord decided to fix it.

Tomorrow, we begin to see what she did.