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Innovation needs more flexible funding, Thornberry says

NOTE: This story first appeared on FCW.com.

The lead Republican on the House's defense committee hopes appropriators will see the wisdom in making funds for buying technology and research more flexible.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, said that while recent congressional authorities to help the Defense Department shortcut the acquisition process have improved matters, resources often hinder smaller companies.

The Defense Department has been increasing its research budgets in recent years, boasting a $106 billion request for fiscal 2021. But that money, if approved, doesn't mean much for technological advancement if it's restricted, according to Thornberry.

"Most technology companies want to do business with the Department of Defense," as a form of service but also because "when you get something as controversial as artificial intelligence if they are on the sidelines, then their viewpoints, their values may not be represented and we need that," Thornberry said March 2 during a Brookings Institution event in Washington, D.C.

Insufficient resources for smaller entities remains a challenge after an initial award thanks to the "proverbial valley of death where funding dries up until it's taken up with a program of record," Thornberry said.

Surmounting that will require more flexibility with funding, he said, and hopes appropriators will agree: "They don't have the resources to keep the people and production lines going."

In the meantime, however, new acquisition authorities are making it easier for DOD to buy tech.

"People in the Department of Defense are more willing to exercise the authorities that we have given them with OTAs [other transaction authorities] and various other mechanisms, and cut through some of the bureaucracy," Thornberry said, when asked about the effects of reorganizing DOD's acquisition technology and logistics organization into undersecretary-led entities acquisition and sustainment, and research and engineering.

"It's still a struggle...but it's better now. They needed to know that they could try something and if it failed, they learned," rather than be "hauled off in front of Congress and berated. That's part of the culture that's on our shoulders...that will take more time."

About the Author

Lauren C. Williams is senior editor for FCW and Defense Systems, covering defense and cybersecurity.

Prior to joining FCW, Williams was the tech reporter for ThinkProgress, where she covered everything from internet culture to national security issues. In past positions, Williams covered health care, politics and crime for various publications, including The Seattle Times.

Williams graduated with a master's in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park and a bachelor's in dietetics from the University of Delaware. She can be contacted at lwilliams@fcw.com, or follow her on Twitter @lalaurenista.

Click here for previous articles by Wiliams.


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