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Funding bill strengthens ‘pipeline’ for students

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The more than $600 billion federal military budget that was approved this month includes millions for weapons research and science education – specialties at the core of a partnership between the University of New Mexico and local military researchers.

Officials from the university, the Air Force Research Lab and U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., joined together Tuesday at Kirtland Air Force Base to celebrate several military funding bill provisions. The news conference highlighted the parts of the bill that set aside money for weapons research and recruitment and training programs for young students, and a provision to speed up the hiring process for researchers from about a year to about two months.

The provisions, Heinrich and UNM Provost Chaouki Abdallah said, strengthen the “pipeline” of students from New Mexico public schools to UNM to jobs at the research lab and other military and Department of Energy laboratories in the state.

The university this year increased its partnership with Sandia National Laboratories, creating more internships and opportunities for students to work and learn at the labs, bringing Sandia researchers in to teach and turn research into actual products.

Ronda Cole, director of the research lab’s STEM Education La Luz Academy, a science and technology program that hosts experiential science events for children and teens, said the programs funded by the military bill create “the pipeline of those who will work for and who will run” the defense and energy labs.

“We need them (students) to preserve our future and the nation’s future,” said Kelly Hammett, director of the research lab’s program developing directed-energy weapons.

Those weapons use energy such as microwaves, lasers or x-rays to disable machinery and weapons and to stun or kill people. Hammett said his department’s goal is to have a directed energy weapon “into the field” by 2020.

Heinrich said these types of weapons are the “future of warfare” and the provisions in the funding bill highlighted Tuesday will inspire and enable New Mexicans to claim the jobs that will help create them.

Hammett said he has 21 New Mexicans with doctorate degrees on his staff, more than from any other school in the nation.

Hiring for his department, though, takes a long time. He and Heinrich said Tuesday that the bill lifts six of the 14 bureaucratic steps – and thus about 10 months – an applicant must complete to be hired.