In a world of new national security threats and opportunities, Colorado State University is rebooting its Office of Defense Engagement to marshal researchers, students and industry as a force for solutions.
The program, under the Office of the Vice President for Research, is under new management, now led by a former U.S. Air Force intelligence officer – a new skill set for a new mission.
The mission is expanded beyond traditional threats as defined by the Department of Defense; it now reaches into biomanufacturing, agricultural security, climate change, pandemic prevention and cybersecurity. Innovations in those sectors, among others, help propel the burgeoning tech innovation ecosystem along the Front Range.
And, at Veterans Day, the Office of Defense Engagement continues to engage military members and veterans on campus, a longstanding collaboration.
CSU Interim President Rick Miranda said the ODE was created to capture new research and expand collaborations.
“We realized that the usual faculty mechanisms for obtaining funding and generating collaborative projects with entities like the National Science Foundation were not effective for reaching into the Department of Defense, and that we were then missing out on some interesting projects and resources,” Miranda said. “So, we put the ODE in place to make those connections and help bring DoD personnel to campus in ways that would lead to joint projects.”
In August, CSU hosted the first in a series of national DARPA Forward conferences, an opportunity to deepen connections between the Defense Department’s research unit and CSU.
Sustained growth and a new strategy
The Office of Defense Engagement was established in 2016 under a collective vision led by the first director and former associate vice president for research, Hank Gardner, whose background stemmed from military service and defense research and development. Gardner joined forces with Miranda and Vice President for Research Alan Rudolph to bring the idea to reality.
Since, research funding to CSU from the DoD has more than doubled to an average of about $100 million per year in the last five years. Another $101.5 million in funds for sponsored projects expenditures flows to the Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands, part of the Warner College of Natural Resources.
In June, Wiley Barnes became the new director of the office after serving 25 years in U.S. Air Force intelligence where he honed the skills necessary to evaluate situations and develop responses.
“Intelligence officers are uniquely positioned to landscape, survey, assess, analyze and recommend,” Rudolph said. “Wiley is well suited to be the integrator, the one who can assess the opportunities ahead.”
Driven by duty
Barnes’ approach begins with a startup mentality, a sense of duty and an understanding that the U.S. must work to maintain its place as the most powerful, influential country in the world.
“We have to discover, we have to invent, we have to innovate on things that we already have, or we’re going to be left behind,” Barnes said. “We have an obligation, not just an opportunity, to advance, innovate and drive positive change.”
The ODE team has spent the last few months connecting across CSU to understand current research and academic programs as well as growth potential based on existing expertise.
“ODE and the research enterprise get me excited because we have deep expertise here at Colorado State University,” Barnes said. “From infectious disease to biotechnology to food security issues, engineering and data science, we are aligned with the national security strategy to be able to create a huge positive difference for Colorado, the United States and the world.”
Barnes and his team strive to serve as the gateway for the university to deepen partnerships with government, NGOs and private industry, while enhancing academic, student affairs and veteran support programs.
Focus on veteran success
In addition to research, the university has deep roots in supporting the Defense Department through active ROTC and veteran’s programs.
The Military Times ranks CSU as the best university for veterans in Colorado, due in no small part to the Adult Learner and Veteran Services program.
ALVS Director Ben Schrader strives to meet students’ needs from admissions to orientation programs, tutoring and childcare. The office helps non-traditional learners find success.
This week, ALVS hosts Veterans Week activities to provide opportunities for connection, recognition and appreciation. The week wraps up with “roll call” on Friday.
“We’ve been doing roll call for a few years,” Schrader explained. “We read all the names of the veterans and soldiers that have passed since 9/11. It goes from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. – a really powerful event.”
Building resilient systems
As ODE weaves its web of connection and collaboration, it will look outward to find opportunities to scale innovation, creativity and impact.
When research comes together with government and business, systems reach critical mass. Take vaccine research and manufacturing: Through the COVID-19 pandemic, research has evolved, starting with universities and government agencies and moving to private pharmaceutical companies that can execute at scale.
Defense engagement finds itself at the center as intricate problem-solving takes place – serving as the liaison or guide to foster productive and resilient systems.
“We can’t build these capabilities without planning cybersecurity into the foundation,” Barnes explained. “But we also need to shape policy so that we can guarantee the resilience of those biotech and biomanufacturing capabilities.”
Before the pandemic, few considered immunology and pathology research to intersect with national security. Now, it’s widely understood that viruses do not respect borders, and society must be prepared for future threats.
On another front, CSU’s efforts to promote mental wellness, especially among young people, encompasses students, military-age people and some veterans. In August, the Office of Vice President for Research hosted a “Collaborations in Mental Wellness” event, which showcased how business, research, cinema and technology can benefit these young people.
“Under Wiley’s leadership, the office will amplify impact of existing programs and find new opportunities to make connections,” Rudolph said. “Wellness is a good example. From a research point of view or a programmatic point of view, I believe this is the potential Wiley brings forward in his work.”