Five Things You Need to Know About FFRDCs

January 2021
Topics: Government Agency Operations, Federal Government Services, Complex Systems Engineering, Data Analytics, Social and Behavioral Sciences, Defense Systems, Decision support
The U.S. government invests billions annually on programs and organizations that spur innovation. Unique among them are 42 federally funded research and development centers (FFRDCs). Learn more about FFRDCs, and MITRE’s role in their evolution.
woman at computer working intently.

Federally funded research and development centers, or FFRDCs, are government-sponsored entities that support a federal agency’s mission. Each FFRDC assists its sponsor agency with scientific research and analysis, development and acquisition, and/or systems engineering and integration. Here are a few facts.

  1. FFRDCs work in the public interest, taking on complex problems that industry can’t. FFRDC work advances technology, contributes to the mission and operation of their sponsoring agencies, and promotes economic health. For example, the Office of the Secretary of Defense called on its MITRE-managed National Security Engineering Center to study aircraft inventory needs over the next decade. The resulting Air Force 2030 study recommends cost-saving measures for extending the life and utilization of aircraft within the existing fleet and analyzed future needs and options. This work became part of the National Defense Strategy and has been the model for other challenges across the Department of Defense.
  2. The Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) governs how FFRDCs operate. By law, FFRDCs cannot compete in the commercial marketplace. The FAR limits the operation of FFRDCs to not-for-profits (like MITRE), academic institutions, or wholly separate units of a commercial company to avoid conflicts of interest. However, FFRDCs can transfer their own technical discoveries to public markets through cooperative research and development agreements, technology licensing, open-source participation, and contributions to industry standards. An example is the Frequency-scaled Ultra-wide Spectrum Element (FUSE) antenna, which MITRE developed in collaboration with the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. The antenna enhances a satellite’s capacity to communicate with other satellites and ground users. MITRE transferred FUSE technology through licensing agreements to companies such as Analytical Space Inc. (ASI), which deployed FUSE as part of its CubeSat prototype.  
  3. FFRDCs bridge government and the private sector.  MITRE manages the National Cybersecurity Federally Funded Research and Development Center (NCF). We collaborate with academia and the private sector to develop guidance for mitigating cybersecurity vulnerabilities in products and market sectors. NCF has used this approach to address cyber-related malfunctions in machine learning models, help secure election infrastructures, and mitigate risks posed by the emerging Internet of Things.
  4. FFRDCs put research to work. FFRDCs understand the sponsors’ mission and unique challenges and identify or discover technology and approaches to solve them. “Our teams put research into practice, testing their findings against sponsor needs. Our goal is application,” says Jim Cook, MITRE vice president, strategic engagement and partnerships. At MITRE, that applies whether our teams are improving the customer experience and promoting government innovation at federal agencies, working to reduce identity theft and improper payments, or protecting systems and taxpayer information against cyber threats. Our team in the Center for Advanced Aviation System Development (CAASD), for example, partners with public and private research centers to transform the Next Generation Air Transportation System. They use MITRE’s laboratories and analytic capabilities to improve air travel safety and reduce its environmental impact.
  5. FFRDCs are trusted partners. They have unique access to data, people, and facilities from government and private sector organizations. This authority comes from the FAR, which restricts FFRDCs from having commercial interests. The FAR requires FFRDCs to work with objectivity and independence. That means government sponsors and their private-sector partners can confidently share data and proprietary information. For more than a decade, MITRE has hosted the Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing (ASIAS) initiative. ASIAS collects and aggregates datasets from the FAA, manufacturers, public sources, and proprietary airline safety data. The analysis helps to proactively identify safety trends and assess the impact of changes in the aviation operating environment, resulting in safer skies. MITRE has applied the ASIAS model to challenges in healthcare supply chains, tax fraud, and, most recently, automobile safety.

MITRE is not an FFRDC, but we operate six of them. Learn more about our achievements as a not-for-profit organization and the discovery-driven work taking place in each of our FFRDCs. It’s all in our fact sheet library.

—by Molly Manchenton

FFRDC infographic

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