U.S. panel calls for new digital service academy to bolster federal workforce

The proposed new U.S. service academy would be comparable to the U.S. Military Academy, but for civilian digital warriors.

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A blue-ribbon panel wants Congress to establish a U.S. Digital Service Academy (USDSA) to help the federal government meet its need for tech-savvy workers.

The digital academy would be similar to the five existing military academies in providing students with a tuition-free education in exchange for 5 years of government service. But instead of becoming a commissioned military officer, graduates would join the civilian workforce at the Department of Defense and other federal agencies.

These digital specialists would help close a widening skills gap in the federal workforce not currently being met by the nation’s colleges and universities, say members of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, which issued its final report last week. “If Stanford [University] were sending a thousand graduates every year into government service, we wouldn’t need this new academy,” says Andrew Moore, head of Google Cloud’s AI division and former dean of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University.

Congress created the commission in 2018 to examine how the United States could keep pace in artificial intelligence (AI) and related technologies with global competitors. The result is a 756-page blueprint for “defending America in an AI era” and “winning the technology competition.” The panel’s research recommendations include a new federal entity for applied work, called the National Technology Foundation, as well as boosting the government’s investment in AI basic research across several existing agencies by tens of billions of dollars. It says Congress should also spend more in areas dependent on advances in AI and machine learning, including quantum computing, advanced manufacturing, synthetic biology, and renewable energy.

A call for service

The digital academy that the commission envisions would be a fully accredited university, funded by the federal government and overseen by a presidentially appointed board. It would award undergraduate degrees in a broad range of “digital technical fields,” including such traditional disciplines as physics, electrical engineering, molecular biology, and math.

The academy would supplement existing government training efforts in information technology. The National Science Foundation, for example, spends $15 million annually on its Scholarship for Service (CyberCorps) program, in which undergraduates commit to up to 3 years of government service in exchange for free tuition and a $25,000 annual stipend. The report also calls for creating a National Reserve Digital Corps, a pool of part-time technologists modeled after the military’s current National Guard program.

It’s too early to know whether policymakers in Congress and the White House will embrace the idea. The youngest service academy, for the U.S. Air Force, was created in 1954. Although the report includes draft legislation that describes how to create and operate the new academy, commission members say their goal is to trigger a robust debate over the best way to provide the government with the digital talent it needs.

Legislators may balk at the overall price tag, predicts one congressional staffer who works on defense programs. “But I have to give them credit for thinking big,” the staffer adds. “If they don’t ask for [all of this], nobody else will.”

One member of the commission, Jose-Marie Griffiths, president of Dakota State University, thinks students from groups now underrepresented in technical fields will jump at the chance for a free education and the opportunity to serve their country. Their participation, she says, would not only diversity the federal workforce, but also bolster the government’s outreach efforts in competing with the private sector for digital workers.

“To be frank, I don’t think that our universities do a particularly good job of encouraging their graduates to go into government,” she says. “There’s a long history of distrust of the government at some of our elite research institutions that goes back to [the Vietnam War]. The private sector “has been very aggressive” at recruiting students with digital skills, she adds, noting that most Dakota State graduates follow that path as well.

Griffiths says she hopes the new academy could graduate its first class of 500 future civilian servants within 6 years of getting the go-ahead from Congress. Removing military requirements from the curriculum should accelerate the startup process and also save money, the report asserts.

“Exclusively producing civil servants would eliminate the need for students to complete [military] commissioning requirements, simplifying the school’s curriculum and administrative burdens, and reduce the need for expansive campus real estate for training and parade grounds,” the report asserts. “It would also make USDSA less redundant, as the military service academies already produce hundreds of computer scientists, electrical engineers, and mathematicians every year.

Startup barriers

Joseph Glover, provost at the University of Florida (UF), agrees that the U.S. government needs more digitally trained workers. But he’d prefer to see Congress accomplish that goal by tapping into existing programs at campuses around the country rather than by starting from scratch.

“Many institutions already have robust programs not only in AI and data science, but also in areas that build on that expertise, including business, the health sciences, engineering, and so on,” Glover says. That breadth of course offerings gives students “multiple entry points” into the field, he says, and doesn’t require them to choose a career path while still in high school.

In addition to employing top-notch faculty across those disciplines, he says, most universities have made a considerable investment in the type of infrastructure that USDSA would need to train students, he adds. At UF, for example, he says the recent gift of a Nvidia supercomputer has allowed the university to create a three-course AI sequence for all undergraduates that covers machine learning, AI ethics, and its application to their major.

Griffiths agrees that “it may seem odd” to call for a new institution at a time when U.S. higher education is being pummeled by the COVID-19 pandemic, projections of a declining student population, and growing pressure to streamline operations. But that’s exactly why she thinks a “bold” initiative like USDSA is needed.

“I’ve seen report after report on ways to grow the STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] workforce, but we continue to lose ground,” she says. “AI encompasses a range of technologies that will affect everything we do. And we need something that takes on the enormous challenges we are facing.”

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