News | Jan. 1, 2003

The Silence of the Labs

By Don J. DeYoung Defense Horizons 21


The Silence of the LabsOverview

Something important to the Nation’s defense has vanished, yet the top Pentagon brass never noticed. Not the stuff of headlines, this loss would not arouse public concern, especially during these times of terrorist massacres, anthrax attacks, corporate scandal, and war. Nevertheless, like the miner’s canary that is first to die with the rush of an ill wind, this loss is a warning. 

In the span of 18 months, the Department of Defense (DOD) lost a key part of its 25-year-old ability to perform fiber optics research at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), the only site with this world-class defense capability. It was not time for DOD to exit this critical field. Urgent security needs not being met anywhere else were being addressed. Both the scale of the loss and the speed with which it occurred reveal a growing problem: the private sector’s increasingly successful recruitment of the best scientists working for the DOD Defense Laboratories. While personnel losses are to be expected in any enterprise, public or private, this particular loss exposes the diminished DOD ability to retain the technical talent necessary to accomplish its mission. 

The death of this “canary” sends warning that an ill wind is blowing for the Defense Laboratories.1 Without reform, their loss of expertise will worsen, eventually to the point where it affects good government and poses significant risks to national security. Should this happen, the Nation will suffer what President Dwight Eisenhower called “a disastrous rise of misplaced power.”