The organization I work for is the largest University Affiliated Research Center’s (UARC) in the United States. I has had more than 70 years of innovation in service to our nation. It encourages people to think outside the box and propose new ideas. This worked well for most of those 70 years, but the ways of proposing these ideas was rather slow and at times difficult.
About three years ago the Laboratory embarked on new ways to spur creativity and innovation. They did this by establishing innovation spaces, mini grants, and centers of excellence. I’ll first describe the innovation spaces.
The innovation spaces include one area called “Central Spark”. This area is available for staff members to pursue endeavors for both personal and sponsor related work. The facility includes several laser etching and engraving machines, electronic breadboards, numerous 3D printers, a CNC machine, metal lathe, milling machine and various tools such are drill presses, soldering irons, and hand tools. In addition, there are several centers of competency such as modeling and simulation, design thinking, and Agile resources.
The second center is called the Intelligent Systems Center which tries to translate research into machine learning, autonomy, robotics and applied neuroscience into capabilities to address U.S. government challenges.
The third area is ICEland (Instrument, Concept & Evaluation). These labs are set up to allow the rapid evaluation of new concepts using some of the latest electronic tools. Some of the tools include devices like advanced biological sensors, high speed cameras, sophisticated networking tools and other devices.
Finally, the Lab has setup an entirely revised grant structure that allows staff members to pitch ideas for research funding and have them voted on by a group of their peers rather than being forced through a series of committees presided over by a select few. If these smaller grants have the ability to demonstrate value, they can then be expanded for a second phase of funding. At this point the idea is to engage more people from different departments who can help expand the idea and add value.
New this year is a category of funding dedicated to people who wish study what work has been done by people well outside the traditional academic arena. This funding will allow staff members to travel to conferences and events to meet people whose prime work fall outside the traditional DoD interests, but might still be relevant. Some funds are also available to allow staff members to travel to some of these conferences and present papers even through the conference is unrelated to the type of work we normally perform.
Through all these means the Lab is really trying to encourage staff members to think outside the box and explore ideas that interest them and possibly provide value to our work.