DOD Dominates Presidential Early-Career Awards

The Department of Defense has claimed the largest share of a prestigious presidential award for young scientists, a change from previous years and part of a broader effort to build ties with academic researchers.

Begun in 1996, the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) offer individual agencies a chance to showcase their brightest young stars for an award that the White House bills as the "highest honor bestowed by the United States government on young professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers." The awards program, which has no funding of its own, is managed by the White House Office of Science and Technology (OSTP), which determines the allocation for each agency. Of the roughly 60 winners named each year, the National Science Foundation has traditionally had the largest single contingent, with 20. While NSF and the National Institutes of Health typically nominate scientists they are already supporting through other mechanisms, other agencies, notably DOD, explicitly make PECASE awards.

Last year, the former head of DOD research, William Rees, successfully petitioned OSTP Director John Marburger to change the allocation for the 2008 class, which was announced last week. Rees had already persuaded his superiors at the Pentagon to increase support for early-career scientists, he told ScienceInsider this week, "as part of a broader reengagement by DOD with academia" (Science, 14 November 2008. p. 1037). Marburger says he had long thought that DOD "wasn't doing enough to encourage young researchers" and that the number of PECASE slots filled by each agency should correspond roughly to the agency's share of the overall federal research budget.

Rather than reshuffle the existing unofficial quota, Marburger allowed the program to expand. Rees, who left the Pentagon at the end of the Bush Administration and is now a senior administrator at Los Alamos National Laboratory, jumped at the opportunity. The result: The new class of PECASE awardees consists of 100 young scientists, of whom 41 were chosen by DOD. That's more than double NSF's share, which has remained at 20, and dwarfs the 12 each from NIH and the Department of Energy. DOD's PECASE awardees will receive up to $1 million over 5 years.

It's not clear what the Obama Administration plans to do next year. Rick Weiss, a spokesperson for OSTP Director John Holdren, says officials are scheduled to discuss the future of the program at a meeting next week. Says Marburger, "I doubt we're in balance yet. ... PECASE awards have a huge impact on the people who receive them."