Female employee using an oscilloscope in the Bedford lab

Independent R&D in the Public Interest Drives National-Scale Innovation

By Karina Wright

At MITRE, experimentation is in our DNA. We solve seemingly unsolvable problems by investing in independent R&D, bridging the critical gaps between government and industry, and sharing our innovations. It’s problem-solving for public good. 

MITRE’s independent research and development program puts a laser focus on our sponsors’ high-stakes problems. 

That’s how neural cognition expert Guido Zarrella describes our commitment to solving national and global challenges through “broadly collaborative and ambitious scientific inquiry.”

Zarrella leads MITRE’s decision science research, exploring how machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) can integrate and transform data into insights, decisions, and anticipatory intelligence.

We invest in 200+ independent research projects annually to enable our researchers and subject matter experts like Zarrella to develop timely and affordable solutions in areas as diverse as self-driving cars, AI, and quantum computing

“We’re getting out ahead of problems that will affect our government sponsors anywhere from two to 10 years from now,” Dr. Jay Schnitzer, MITRE senior vice president and chief technology and medical officer, says. 

To do this, Schnitzer says, “we look at either applying existing technologies and concepts in new ways or determine if we need to develop novel technology to solve a specific problem. Regardless of the path, our solutions must transition to real-world environments.” 

That means studying problems in a range of disciplines. It also means exploring solutions from the viewpoint of the end user—from cyber analysts, air traffic controllers, and soldiers to oncologists, tax fraud experts, or everyday citizens.

It’s an approach that consistently yields results for our mission of solving problems for a safer world. 

Recent game-changing innovations produced through our independent R&D program include crowdsourcing patterns of cyber attacker behavior, methods to improve cancer patient outcomes, and a more powerful, lower-cost antenna.

Bridging Critical Spaces  

Many companies innovate. What’s unique about our independent R&D is that our goal is to pay it forward to benefit the nation. But why tackle immense public challenges without a conventional return on investment? 

Because MITRE’s public interest mission and freedom from commercial conflicts of interest allow us to take risks where others cannot or choose not to. We can make strategic investments in emerging technology, expand on existing capabilities, and test a proof of concept. 

“We use our insights into the national and international technology landscape to understand which organizations are working on specific problems and various technologies,” Matthijs Broer, Ph.D., who directs MITRE’s independent R&D program, says. “Our research often focuses on the gaps—the spaces critical to our sponsors no one else is filling.” 

With a unique vantage point working across much of the federal government, Broer says, we’re frequently able to fill those gaps by adapting a solution used in one domain to meet challenges in another. And by collaborating across MITRE’s innovation ecosystem, including our federal R&D centers, MITRE Labs, Fellows, and intellectual property technology licensing program.

Our research often focuses on the gaps—the spaces critical to our sponsors no one else is filling.

Matthijs Broer, Ph.D, director, MITRE's independent R&D program

Laura Leets, who leads the independent R&D program’s Agile Connected Government area, collaborated with fellow social scientists to build the MITRE Nudge Lab, which focuses on novel ways to encourage behavioral changes in the public realm. 

“Trying to influence human behavior with a nudge isn’t new,” Leets says. “What’s new is using this method in the field of public policy. We’re applying evidence-based data to analyze obstacles and design effective ways to help people overcome them. It’s a low-cost, low-risk intervention with tangible gains.”

The new twist on nudging has had real-world success—from improving taxpayer compliance and speeding hospital discharges to increasing the response rate to a consumer product recall. 

Zarrella says our independent R&D program is “MITRE at its best, allowing us to identify solutions that scale, where progress against some specific problem creates infrastructure that unlocks huge opportunities.”

To that end, we further our public impact by making our prototypes and processes available to others through patents and licensing. In the last 15 years alone, we’ve received close to 200 patents and granted nearly 1,800 licenses.

We also broadly share our findings and best practices through publishing and conferences. For example, our award-winning 2020 study, Measuring the Impact of Innovation Activities in Government (Defense Acquisition University), offers recommendations for innovating across multiple organizations and stakeholders, each with their own definitions of success. 

Diverse Teams Pursuing Big Ideas

Independent research doesn’t mean we’re in it alone. The kind of challenges we seek to solve require a broad diversity of ideas, perspectives, and expertise. 

We partner with government labs, academia, and industry to pioneer new solutions faster by combining expertise. These strategic collaborations bring prototypes and data to decision-making and critical missions on the ground, in the air, in cyberspace, and in space.

Most of our research projects address future problems on and over the horizon. But when an immediate need arises—such as coping with a pandemic—we quickly pivot, link government and industry capabilities, and convene private- and public-sector experts to tackle the challenge. 

“MITRE’s independent R&D projects help our sponsors address critical challenges facing the nation—such as COVID-19, systemic inequality, supply chain disruptions, and climate change, to name just a few,” Leets says.

Another unique aspect of our independent R&D is that employees with varying levels of experience and in any discipline may contribute research ideas and compete for internal funding. Most researchers create diverse teams, pulling relevant expertise in technology and sponsor domains from across the corporation.

“Our R&D program offers career growth, adds to MITRE’s technical expertise, and provides the resources to grow someone’s passion into something with transformative impact,” says Zarrella, who conducted independent research projects for several years. 

“Anyone with a great idea can contribute to the strategic direction of something much bigger than themselves.”

Learn more about our independent R&D program and how you can join us in our mission: solving problems for a safer world. 

Above: Duyen Le, a senior cybersecurity software engineer, examines readings on an oscilloscope in MITRE's Bedford, Massachusetts, Software Engineering Laboratory. (Photo by Mike Mahoney.)