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Howard University announced this week that President Wayne Frederick hosted Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall at a campus event to mark Howard’s selection as the first historically Black college and university (HBCU) to lead a University Affiliated Research Center (UARC) and the first center to be funded by the Air Force.

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UARCs conduct basic, applied, and technology research, provide facilities, and share space with military and industrial participants. The center at Howard University will focus its research on tactical autonomy at the forefront of science and innovation.

According to the press release, the UARC will be established through a five-year, $90 million contract agreement with the Department of Defense. Howard University will be awarded $18 million annually to conduct research to develop human-machine teaming and systems-of-systems with autonomy and artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities that fall within the Air Force, Space Force, and defense department priorities.

Currently, Howard has 15 doctoral students and two master’s level students researching autonomous systems and machine learning. With this contract, Howard becomes the national expert on tactical autonomy technology.

“Being awarded this contract is a historic and tremendous accomplishment for Howard University,” said Frederick. “Howard researchers are uniquely positioned to serve as a leader in innovation and application of automated systems. This center puts Howard University at the forefront of science and technology efforts. While the center’s goal is conducting research for the Air Force and Department of Defense, this center is also meant to help Howard, and the consortium schools increase their research capacity. I have no doubt that this work will move us one step closer to our goal of reaching an R1 classification.”

Howard is classified among R2 Doctoral Universities with high research activity. According to Inside Higher Ed, only eleven HBCUs in the nation are in the R2 category. No HBCU has yet received the R1 classification.

R1 Doctoral Universities have very high research activity. The classification includes institutions that had at least $5 million in total research expenditures as reported through the National Science Foundation (NSF) Higher Education Research & Development Survey.

In 2022, Howard University reportedly raised  $122 million in grants and contracts,  the first HBCU to reach that amount after attaining $66 million in 2020 and $91.3 million in research grants and contracts in 2021.

“Today, as we work to build enduring advantages for our brave men and women in uniform, we must seek the latest innovations in science and engineering. That means building more bridges to America’s outstanding STEM community,” said Austin at the event. “Only a fraction of our department’s research funding goes to HBCUs. As Secretary of Defense, I am determined to change that. To sharpen America’s technological edge and to strengthen America’s outstanding military, the department is committed to investing in even more HBCUs and minority-serving institutions. Today, we are taking that commitment to a new level.”

Along with the essential research being completed, the Howard University UARC will implement programming intended to spark curiosity in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education amongst K-12 students through in-school demonstrations and ease their path to a career in the fields of artificial intelligence (AI), cybersecurity, tactical autonomy, and machine learning. In addition, undergraduate and graduate students will be encouraged to participate in UARC research.

“This is one of the most prestigious research contracts that can be received by a research-focused institution of higher education. The success we have had thus far was made possible by the relentless efforts of the team at Howard’s Office of Research. Success in the next five years of our work with the Department of Defense can lead to this UARC remaining at Howard in perpetuity and cementing the university’s status as one of the country’s premier research institutions,” said Bruce Jones, Ph.D., vice president for research at Howard University.

Danda Rawat, Ph.D., professor of computer science and director of Howard’s Data Science and Cybersecurity Center, will serve as the executive director of the UARC and principal investigator on the contract.

“This UARC will be critical in our efforts to continue to recruit, mentor and graduate students who are prepared for high-paying jobs in the future. For decades Howard has produced highly skilled, highly credentialed STEM professionals, and the support of the Department of Defense and the Air Force will allow us to do at a higher level than ever before,” said Rawat.

The establishment of the Howard UARC enables the university to create a pipeline for students from elementary to post-graduate education. Howard will lead a consortium of HBCUs, which will be established as part of the UARC’s infrastructure.

Students participating in UARC research will have the opportunity to have their education fully funded up to the Ph.D. level at any one of the consortium schools.

Howard University UARC Consortium Schools include Jackson State University, Hampton University, Tuskegee University, Bowie State University, Delaware State University, Florida Memorial University, Norfolk State University, and Tougaloo College.

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