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In an HBCU first, Howard awarded $90 million military research contract

The school will become the first historically Black institution to lead one of the Pentagon’s 15 university-affiliated research centers

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks during an announcement at Howard University on Monday that the school had been awarded $90 million for a university-affiliated research center. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Howard University has been awarded a five-year, $90 million contract to lead a research center focused on technology for military systems, university and defense officials announced Monday, the first such center at a historically Black college or university.

The new center, funded by the Defense Department and the Air Force, will focus on tactical autonomy technology for military systems. The investment reflects efforts by military leaders to promote and draw upon expertise that better reflects the country they are protecting — and correct biases and problems that weaken it.

Howard has long been making history, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told a crowd gathered in the university’s Founders Library, with its carved wooden panels and arched windows. “It has always been dedicated to scientific discovery and innovation,” he said, naming past accomplishments in math, chemistry and medicine.

“Howard, once again, you’re making history,” he said.

About a third of the country’s Black science, technology, engineering and math professionals graduate from HBCUs, Austin said. “And they’re the talent our country needs. They’re the leaders who can strengthen our national security.”

But research funding has been heavily skewed toward predominantly White institutions in the past. “Clearly, the DOD has historically not done enough to draw on the depth of talent, expertise and potential,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said to the audience at Howard.

“As Secretary Kendall noted,” Austin said, “only a tiny fraction of the department’s research funding goes to HBCUs. You know, that just doesn’t add up. As secretary of defense, I’m determined to change that.”

Bruce Jones, vice president for research at Howard, said there are a lot of issues with artificial intelligence and facial recognition technology, with limitations to how well machines can distinguish Black faces and problems with how other elements in a photo are interpreted by algorithms, apparently influenced by the race of the person in the photo. A stick could be seen as simply a stick — or a gun, he said. “Part of the way to get at that is to diversify the people who are working in the field of artificial intelligence.”

The Pentagon has 14 existing university-affiliated research centers, where defense, industry and academic officials share space and collaborate on basic and applied research. Among them are centers at the University of Maryland at College Park and Johns Hopkins University.

At the new center at Howard, researchers will begin work Feb. 1 at a temporary site while renovations are being performed on a more permanent home, said Danda Rawat, who leads the Department of Defense Center of Excellence in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning at Howard and will be the principal investigator at the new center. They hope the five-year, $90 million contract will be renewed “for life,” he said.

Howard will lead a consortium of universities that includes Jackson State, Delaware State, Bowie State, Norfolk State, Hampton, Florida Memorial and Tougaloo College.

One focus, Rawat said, will be improving the collaboration among platforms and sites, from land to sea to air to space to cyberspace — and from human to machine and vice versa.

The contract is a recognition of the work Howard has done to promote science, technology, engineering and math, Howard University President Wayne A.I. Frederick said in an interview, with the school sending more Black students on to doctoral programs in those fields than other universities and building a program designed to foster such tracks.

“We’ve had a big focus on expanding the research enterprise for the university,” he said, both to train a more diverse population of researchers and to ensure that research is benefiting a more diverse population.

The center will also benefit students, both those who can work in the labs on research and those as young as middle school on Howard’s campus who will gain early exposure to the fields, Frederick said.

“American scientists and engineers and researchers have always helped to keep our country safe,” Austin said. “They’ve developed medical treatments that protect our troops in combat. They produce prosthetics that give hope to so many veterans and their families. And they tackled 21st-century challenges like global pandemics and the climate crisis.”

To seek the latest innovations, he said, military officials must build more bridges to those scientists. “We need your ideas,” he said. “We need your creativity. And we need to draw on the skills of all of our people.”