National Security a Crucial Part of STEM Discussion

Technology is more important than ever for defense, an expert says.

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Education, jobs, and the economy are all tightly connected concepts in the STEM conversation, and at the U.S. News STEM Solutions 2012 summit in Dallas, defense experts wove another topic into the conversation: national security.

Amid widely dispersed forces, recent defense cuts, and potentially more cuts on the way with the sequestration scheduled for the end of the year, technology is more important than ever for defense, said Brigadier General Richard Keene, assistant vice commander of U.S. Special Operations Command.

Technological advancements keep U.S. armed forces safe and successful on the battlefield, he said. "We have the ability to fight at night. That's an advantage our adversaries don't enjoy," said Keene, but he added that the benefits go beyond combat operations.

"It's not only firepower–its the ability to communicate," he said, noting that technological innovation has helped military communications evolve from signal flags to telegraph to telephone to radio to satellite communications.

National security may not be a common part of the STEM conversation, but it faces the same frustrating challenges that come up in any conversation about science and math education.

"How do we get people who are the most talented interested in working in these fields?" said Reginald Brothers, deputy assistant secretary of defense for research at the U.S. Department of Defense. "How do we incentivize it?"

He noted, however, that defense faces its own unique STEM hardship: It must "contend with commercial industry" for STEM-skilled workers. As long as these highly skilled workers are a scarce resource, government and private enterprise will continue to have to compete with each other to woo the best and the brightest.