This week the U.S. Navy abruptly terminated its own scientific advisory group, depriving the service of a source of internal critique and evaluation.
The Naval Research Advisory Committee (NRAC) was established by legislation in 1946 and provided science and technology advice to the Navy for the past 73 years. Now it’s gone.
The decision to disestablish the Committee was announced in a March 29 Federal Register notice, which did not provide any justification for eliminating it. Phone and email messages to the office of the Secretary of the Navy seeking more information were not returned.
“I think it’s a shortsighted move,” said one Navy official, who was not part of the decision-making process.
This official said that the Committee had been made vulnerable by an earlier effort to reduce the number of Navy advisory committees. Instead of remaining an independent entity, the NRAC was redesignated as a sub-committee of the Secretary of the Navy Advisory Panel, which provides policy advice to the Secretary. It was a poor fit for the NRAC technologists, the official said, since they don’t do policy and were thus “misaligned.” When the Secretary decided to eliminate the Panel, the NRAC was swept away with it.
Did the NRAC do or say something in particular to trigger the Navy’s wrath? If so, it’s unclear what that might have been. “This is the most highly professional crew I’ve seen,” the Navy official said. “They stay between the lines.”
The NRAC was the Navy counterpart to the Army Science Board and the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board. It has no obvious replacement.
“This will leave the Navy without an independent and objective technical advisory body, which is not in the best interests of the Navy or the nation,” said a Navy scientist.
According to the NRAC website (which is still online for now), “The Naval Research Advisory Committee (NRAC) is an independent civilian scientific advisory group dedicated to providing objective analyses in the areas of science, research and development. By its recommendations, the NRAC calls attention to important issues and presents Navy management with alternative courses of action.”
Its mission was “To know the problems of the Navy and Marine Corps, keep abreast of the current research and development programs, and provide an independent, objective assessment capability through investigative studies.”
A 2017 report on Autonomous and Unmanned Systems in the Department of the Navy appears to be the NRAC’s most recent unclassified published report.
Under Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly ordered disestablishment of the NRAC in a 21 February 2019 memo.
“This was a sudden and unexpected move according to people I know,” said the Navy scientist. “I have not yet seen an explanation for its termination.”