Senator Chris Coons (D–DE, right) examining equipment at a composite materials laboratory at the University of Delaware in Newark.

Senator Chris Coons (D–DE, right) examines equipment at a composite materials laboratory at the University of Delaware in Newark.

University of Delaware Center for Composite Materials

Pentagon told to boost manufacturing engineering education

It’s hard for Babatunde Ogunnaike to contain his excitement at the thought of a new federal grants program aimed at improving the U.S. manufacturing workforce.

Last week, President Barack Obama signed the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a bill setting policy for all activities at the Department of Defense (DOD). Buried within the 969 pages of legislation (S. 2943) is a manufacturing engineering education program to be run by the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Ogunnaike, dean of engineering at the University of Delaware (UD) in Newark, has been an advocate for the program ever since two Washington, D.C.–based think tanks first floated it 4 years ago as a network of manufacturing universities. And although the final version is far more limited both in scope and in the size of the federal investment, he still thinks the new program “will be a game changer, if done correctly.”

DOD and other federal agencies already spend billions of dollars on ways to improve U.S. manufacturing. The money funds both the research—on new materials, technologies, and processes—and the steps needed to turn that new knowledge into commercial products. In fact, this month Delaware received a $70 million grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) for an Institute for Advanced Biopharmaceutical Manufacturing, the 12th in a national network of manufacturing institutions created during the Obama administration.

But what’s new about the NDAA-created program, Ugunnaike says, is its emphasis on education and training. “I view this program as the best way to supply a steady stream of well-trained workers in advanced 21st century manufacturing,” he says.

The legislation creates a grants program for which companies, nonprofit organizations, and academic-industry consortia would be eligible as well as universities. It contains a broad description of what counts as an education program including classroom and lab activities, internships, faculty development, and recruitment, and a host of interactions with the private sector and national laboratories. Those activities may include training current and former members of the armed forces and their dependents. It also says the winning applicants should be dispersed across the country “to the maximum extent practicable.”

The new law doesn’t specify where the new program would be housed, nor provide a desired level of funding. But supporters say they have no beef with a provision in a 2017 DOD spending bill pending in the Senate that includes $10 million for the program and that would place it within the DOD office of the assistant secretary for research and engineering, which oversees all basic research funded by the military. The Senate bill is stalled until the new Congress agrees on final 2017 spending levels for the fiscal year that began 3 months ago. Agency budgets are now frozen at 2016 levels through April 2017.

Think tank origins

The $10 million is a far cry from the $500-million-a-year figure cited in a January 2013 proposal by two think tanks—the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) and the Brookings Institution, both based in Washington, D.C.—for the government to designate 20 “manufacturing universities.” Engineering at most universities “has shifted away from a focus on real-world problem solving toward more abstract engineering science,” says ITIF President Robert Atkinson. For precedent, the paper refers to an 1862 law creating land-grant universities to improve agricultural practices through research and dissemination of those findings. Atkinson suggested that the National Science Foundation (NSF) should run the program.

The price tag and the program’s location drew criticism from academics, who worried it would steal from NSF’s existing budget for academic research. A 2015 bill (S. 771) by Ogunnaike’s home-state senator, Chris Coons (D–DE), addressed both of those issues by locating the network within NIST and proposing $5 million a year for up to 25 universities.

Although Coons’s bill attracted bipartisan support, it never advanced. So when congressional leaders agreed to move ahead with NDAA in a lame-duck session after the November election, Coons used the vehicle to win a spot for a pared-down version of the concept.

“The $10 million is designed to get the program started,” says an aide to Coons. “We will continue to seek additional funding in future years. We consider it a great win to have a new grants program enacted in this challenging legislative environment.”

Lobbyists for major research universities say they were surprised to see that companies could apply for the grants on their own. “It’s hard to know exactly what they meant by that, but my guess is a desire for more public-private partnerships,” says one university official who requested anonymity. “That’s assuming the money gets appropriated,” he adds.

Ogunnaike and his peers around the country are certainly hoping that will happen. If it does, Ogunnaike would like to use the program to strengthen UD’s relationship with the state’s sole 2-year university, Delaware Technical Community College (Del Tech). That could mean new certificate programs and an associate degree in manufacturing, along with a bachelor’s degree in manufacturing engineering for students who start at Del Tech and then finish at UD’s Newark campus with a research project and an internship at a local manufacturing company. “Everybody is saying that we simply don’t have enough trained people,” Ogunnaike says, “and this program provides us with a window to reform U.S. manufacturing and regain our past dominance.”

The legislation requires applicants to show that they have plans to wean themselves from federal funding within 3 years of receiving a grant. “It's our expectation that a successful applicant will be able to provide an analysis of industry demand in their region, and a strategy for how federal resources will be used to modernize curriculum to meet that demand,” says the Coons’s staffer. “This would include annual and multiyear goals, and periodic updates that provide an assessment on progress toward achieving those goals.” For Ogunnaike, the sustainability clause is not a significant hurdle.

“I’m building something to last 50 years,” he says about efforts already underway at UD. “I probably shouldn’t say this,” he adds, “but we are going to do this anyway.”