The Navy is bucking the military trend to cut funding for research on manpower and personnel--where the lion's share of Department of Defense (DoD) behavioral and social sciences research resides.

Faced with a failure to meet recruiting levels recently, the Navy has, in fact, deemed manpower and personnel research one of 12 priority research areas and has revamped its laboratory that conducts and coordinates that research.

Last year, because of base closings and reorganization within the Navy, the laboratory, then called the Navy Personnel Research and Development Center, moved from San Diego into a newly remodeled lab space at the Naval Support Activity, Mid-South in Millington, Tenn., just outside Memphis. Now called the Navy Personnel Research, Studies and Technology (NPRST) Department, the lab is looking toward a future with more stable funding than it's had in years--well-planned at least into 2007, says Murray Rowe the lab's director, who moved with the lab to Tennessee.

The main focus of NPRST research--90 percent of which is applied--is on developing technologies to recruit, retain and manage Navy and Marine Corps personnel. Traditionally, behavioral researchers such as Rowe have been hard-pressed to convince military brass of the importance of funding behavioral and social sciences research on issues related to manpower and personnel. Indeed, as with many employers, DoD has focused more heavily on developing new technology than new techniques for attracting, retaining and training personnel. The assumption had been that good people are easy to find, says Rowe. That's not the case anymore though, as the military competes with abundant, well-paying private-sector jobs, and colleges and universities draw people who may in the past have opted for a military career.

At the same time, the Navy of the future will require higher skilled, more technology-savvy sailors and marines than ever before. And identifying and training those people will require increasingly sophisticated methods, says Hal Guard, PhD, head of the Human Systems Department at the Office of Naval Research (ONR), which funds the majority of NPRST's work.

"As we move to the future with a higher-tech Navy, there is an ever increasing need for research on manpower and personnel," says Guard. "We need more highly skilled sailors and marines, so it makes sense for the Navy to invest in this area."

A plan for the future

The blueprint for the Navy's increased emphasis on manpower and personnel research, much of which is carried out by NPRST, is a December 1998 report created by Rowe and his colleagues called "Sailor 21" (see a copy at www.nprst.navy.mil/). The document concludes that without a significant investment in manpower and personnel research, the Navy will be ill-prepared for the future.

In particular, as Congress and DoD put more money into high-tech weapon systems and shrink the number of people they hire to operate them, those who are left will need to be "more capable, able to learn more, faster and perform a much broader range of tasks," states the report.

"Just as we need new hardware technologies to meet the challenges of the future," the report continues, "we must improve our manpower and personnel technologies to ensure total force readiness."

Rowe expected the report would stir controversy because it proposes radical changes in the Navy's operations. For example, it suggests that the Navy replace "classifiers"--who assign recruits to various jobs before they report for boot camp--with a process that classifies recruits only after the Navy does a whole-person assessment, including a personality profile and evaluations of cognitive and physical skills.

The current process takes about 10 minutes, and, because it's based on a relatively superficial evaluation, often leads to dissatisfaction and job attrition, says Rowe. The new system--which would be created through research conducted at NPRST--would take longer and require new personality assessments and other evaluation tools. It would create "a hugely different business process for the Navy," says Rowe.

But instead of opposition, he found "tremendous support" throughout the naval hierarchy. So much so that four of the six research areas outlined in "Sailor 21"--recruiting, selection and classification, personnel planning and policy analysis, and distribution and assignment--have been integrated into the Navy's seven-year master research plan known as "Capable Manpower," says Rowe.

"The 'Sailor 21' document provided a foundation on which to build our research plan," says Matt Henry, Assistant Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Manpower and Personnel). "It took the first step in helping us visualize how we need to change the way we do business."

And the Navy is committed to supporting NPRST and the research it does, adds ONR's Guard. "Funding in this area is very stable," he says, adding that Chief of Naval Research Rear Admiral Paul Gaffney II has worked to secure support from within the Navy, within DoD and within Congress.

Recruiting researchers

Although support within the Navy is strong, and NPRST has plenty of money and work, Rowe needs to rebuild his staff before it can be fully effective. In San Diego, the laboratory employed around 100 people, many of whom decided not to relocate during the move. Rowe estimates he's only about half staffed and is searching for a broad range of researchers, including psychologists, economists, mathematicians, computer scientists and sociologists. The people he hires must have a good quantitative background, says Rowe.

"I'm looking to hire the best quantitative athlete I can find," he says

And although most of the lab's research is applied, it also supports a strong and expanding basic science program with some of the work conducted in-house and some done through collaborations with universities. For example, NPRST is working with the University of Memphis on basic research that will help it design intelligent software agents that will match sailors to their assignments. Researchers at Memphis are attempting to not only add programming that allows the software to deliberate, but to express emotions so the program can appropriately evaluate the different concerns of both sailors and those who are looking to hire the sailors. Along with the University of Memphis, Rowe has established a strong tie with the University of Mississippi. Other interested researchers can apply to work on NPRST-related projects through ONR.

"If you'd like the opportunity to work in an applied setting and see your work impact how a large organization operates, this is the place to be," says Rowe. "We work with folks to solve real-world problems."

Further Reading

To find out more about job opportunities with NPRST, call or e-mail Murray Rowe: (901) 874-4633, Murray.Rowe@persnet.navy.mil.