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SECAF Heather Wilson speaking during the NSF and USAF partnership event in Washington, D.C., May 9, 2018. NSF photo by Rob Margetta.​

Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson and National Science Foundation Director France Cordova signed a letter of intent Wednesday afternoon, kicking off increased visibility between the organizations’ research efforts.

The planned collaboration is focused on four broad areas: space operations and geosciences, advanced material sciences, information and data sciences, and workforce and processes. USAF and NSF experts in these areas will form working groups and identify mutually beneficial paths to this end. Other than that, the agreement is largely symbolic at the moment, and will take shape in the coming months. 

“We don’t have a roadmap to what will be the exact outcome,” Cordova said after the signing, adding the partnership is in a “very early” phase. “We know what [the] needs are and the Air Force brings a whole set of needs and directions.” Part of the vision includes avoiding or decreasing duplicative efforts in research for both organizations.

 

​Wilson said the partnership will allow USAF to tap into NSF’s long-time and institutional expertise in collaborating with universities. The foundation is “much better” than the Air Force at doing so, she said. USAF, to pull its weight, can bring applicative endpoints to that research, honing it and elevating its usefulness, what Cordova called “lab-to-market” capability. As the working groups lay out their respective suggestions, Wilson and Cordova plan to meet twice a year for updates on their progress. 

The agreement’s emphasis on academia is in tune with recent and reflective efforts to that end. In September 2017, Wilson announced a year-long science and technology review for USAF practices, to be led by the Air Force Research Laboratory. Integral to that ongoing effort, whose conclusion comes in the Fall, is learning how to better work with universities and academic institutions. In January, AFRL also announced a so-called listening tour across the US, several of which took and will take place at universities. 

So far, USAF and NSF have already been finding ways to share research on artificial intelligence, data, and materials, and also began searching for NSF intern placements in the Air Force.