William S. Rees Jr. | October 20, 2008 Issue - Vol. 86 Issue 42 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 86 Issue 42 | p. 50 | C&EN Talks With
Issue Date: October 20, 2008

William S. Rees Jr.

Chemist is at the helm of Defense Department's basic research office
Department: Government & Policy | Collection: Homeland Security
William S. Rees Jr.
Credit: Department of Defense
William S. Rees Jr.
Credit: Department of Defense

WHEN ONE THINKS ABOUT research at the Department of Defense, what comes to mind are classified, applied projects like antimissile defense systems or high-tech body armor. But when William S. Rees Jr. talks about defense research, he talks about people, grants, and education.

Rees is the deputy undersecretary of defense for laboratories and basic sciences. This area of DOD includes basic chemical research and has a $1.8 billion research budget for fiscal 2009.

"We are responsible for all the fundamental, basic research at DOD, and the department-wide programs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education," Rees says. "We have responsibility in some areas of the DOD laboratories, with about 40,000 scientists and engineers working at them, and for some aspects of international science and technology cooperation programs."

For these activities, Rees contends, you need good people. "We require individuals to work on some of the most challenging, the most complex systems that have ever been dreamed up or envisioned. To meet these challenges, we need to get the people with the most talent."

Rees is doing so by rebuilding the department's relationship with university researchers. "We started the National Security Science & Engineering Faculty Fellowship program last year as a direct response to a recommendation made in the National Academies' report 'Rising Above the Gathering Storm,' " Rees says. NSSEFF provides long-term support to university scientists for critical research relevant to DOD missions. The first six awards, which were made in June, will provide $600,000 per year for up to five years to each recipient.

"This level of engagement with the university community is primarily due to the department's efforts to get back to the universities. We kind of became disengaged in the 1990s at the end of the Cold War, and we are starting to swing back to that closer engagement," Rees explains. He hopes that a second round of awards for NSSEFF will be made before the end of this year. "We're excited about this. We got more than 800 intents for a program that has been capped at 10 awards. It's great to see the university community engaged and wanting to be involved with us."

Rees's interest in university ties is a natural one. He received a Ph.D. in synthetic inorganic chemistry at Texas Tech University in 1986. Then, he explains, "as a postdoc, I went off into a whole different area. I got heavily into materials science and started my independent academic career doing materials chemistry." After a stint at Florida Sate University, Rees took a joint appointment in the Schools of Chemistry & Biochemistry and of Materials Science & Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology in 1994. His first job in Washington, D.C., was in 2003, organizing the research programs for the new Department of Homeland Security. He assumed his current position in June 2006.

A second university program that Rees is excited about is the Science, Mathematics & Research for Transformation scholarship program for undergraduates and graduates. "SMART started a few years ago as a pilot program with about 30 students, and this year we will be making almost 200 new awards," Rees says.

"We recognize that 78% of the workforce in our laboratories is physical scientists and engineers," Rees notes. To have the best people to fill these positions, he says, his office is working to make sure that young students have the tools they need to become scientists or engineers.

"I would like to ask that other chemists and chemical engineers think about participating in public service."

"If you look at the entrance data for students entering any top engineering school, you'll see that there's a course that acts as a gatekeeper function. Typically, it's Algebra 2," Rees explains. "If students don't take at least Algebra 2 in high school, then they are not going to be part of the physical science workforce pool that we need," he says. To help change this situation, he points out, DOD has programs that encourage students to take math in middle school and high school so they at least have the opportunity to study science and engineering in college.

THE INCREASED ATTENTION to universities has had one small snag. Because of DOD security regulations, some university contracts have placed restrictions on publication of research results and limits on foreign participation in DOD research. Universities have objected to these restrictions in basic research contracts. A recent survey of research universities conducted by the nonprofit Council on Government Relations and the Association of American Universities found about 200 such restrictive clauses (C&EN, Sept. 1, page 38).

That the survey found so few restrictive clauses encourages Rees. "We issue thousands of new, unrestricted grants every year, each with dozens of specific clauses. So if there are only a couple of hundred that we don't agree on when we put them out, I think that's not necessarily a bad news story," he says.

Although his enthusiasm for the work is high, Rees will resign in January with the start of a next Administration. He says his experience in Washington has shown him how important it is for scientists like him to get involved in government.

"I would like to ask that other chemists and chemical engineers think about participating in public service," Rees says. "We need technically informed debate in this city. Our government functions best when that debate is focused on data, and we never have enough data. The opportunities for service in the federal government are abundant, and I think chemists and engineers should think about coming and doing a stint for civil service."

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