Naval Research Advisory Committee
The Naval Research Advisory Committee (NRAC) was an independent civilian scientific advisory group dedicated to providing objective analyses in the areas of science, research and development. Founded at the same time as ONR in 1946, NRAC was disestablished in 2019. It was the senior scientific advisory group to the Secretary of the Navy, the Chief of Naval Operations, Commandant of the Marine Corps, and the Chief of Naval Research. As a permanent committee of experts, it acted as a corporate consultant and advisor to top-level Navy officials. The Committee reported to the Secretary of the Navy through the Assistant Secretary to the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition. Over the course of its existence, NRAC provided guidance on a wide range of topics, from lasers and superconductivity to reducing ship manning to information warfare, and the committee’s reports offer insights into the history of the Navy’s relationship with science and technology since World War II.
Reliance on advisory committees as a tool for assessing the Navy’s research and development programs has a long history. The Permanent Commission, founded in 1863, was the earliest. Subsequent advisory committees using civilian experience and skills in solving major technical problems followed. Among the best known was the World War I Consulting Board, attached to the Office of the Secretary of the Navy. It considered major problems of research and development, and recommended the establishment of the Naval Research Laboratory.
Near the end of World War II, several prominent scientists were concerned that the loss of existing scientific manpower and the absence of organizational ties to the scientific community at large would present serious deficiencies for defense-related research efforts. In response a core group, interested in peacetime organization of Navy research and development, envisioned a central research office in the Office of the Secretary of the Navy headed by an admiral, receiving funds from Congress for research projects, as well as a powerful research advisory committee made up of top scientists.
This vision became a reality in 1946, when Congress passed Public Law 588, which created the Office of Naval Research and the Naval Research Advisory Committee.
The committee concentrated its first ten years on advising the Chief of Naval Research in developing the new Office of Naval Research and laying the groundwork and policy for the conduct of basic research. In 1956, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke asked NRAC to intensify its activities on his behalf. The committee accepted this challenge. At its 27th meeting, the NRAC chairperson stated what became the committee’s central mission: “To know the problems of the Navy and Marine Corps, keep abreast of the current research and development programs, and provide an independent, objective assessment capability through investigative studies.”
How It Worked
NRAC was limited by law to 15 members who were preeminent in the fields of science, research, and development, with one member specializing in medicine. They were selected from industry, academia, and research institutes, and non-Defense Department government agencies, and were each appointed by the Secretary of the Navy to a two-year term.
The committee normally met quarterly, and also when called by the committee chairperson. One of the meetings was a two-week summer study. Meetings were held at different Navy and Marine Corps installations, laboratories, and on board fleet units such as submarines, aircraft carriers, and ships to provide the members with substantive exposure to maritime activities and experiences.
A steering group, titled the NRAC executive committee, identified and recommended to the Assistant Secretary to the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition topics and their associated “terms of reference” (TOR) for NRAC investigation. Upon approval, the NRAC chair selected a panel chairperson for the effort, who then proposed the panel’s membership and formulated a plan to accomplish the topic’s objectives.
The actual investigative work of the NRAC was performed by its panels. Led by a panel chairperson, selected from the full 15-member committee, the panel’s membership was purposefully composed to bring together experts who, in the aggregate, provided a balanced view of a topic. Upon completion of the briefing program, the members discussed and formulated a final set of findings and recommendations in response to the study’s terms of reference. The usual duration of a panel was six to 12 months. Normal membership size varied from 6 to 15, with approximately half of the panel's members coming from the 15-member standing committee.
The products of each panel study were a set of formal briefings to the Assistant Secretary to the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition, the affected Navy activities, and Washington-area Defense/Navy program offices, as well as a written report of findings and recommendations. Each report was approved by the NRAC chair and the Assistant Secretary to the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition, and distributed to appropriate Navy and Defense Department activities.
A complete list of NRAC reports and associated materials from 1988 to 2018 can be found here. For reports older than 1988, please visit the National Archives.
For inquiries about NRAC, its reports, and how to obtain them, please contact the ONR Historian at firstname.lastname@example.org or 703-696-5031.