Health-related research for the military with Kevin Kaiser
Kevin Kaiser, Leidos vice president and division manager for Biobehavioral Research, recently provided insight into the company’s approach to health-related and other research, and how that work aligns with Leidos programs supporting the military.
What are some of the characteristics of a strong research organization?
Kaiser: The easiest way to assess whether an organization excels at research is to consider what others in the scientific field think of the organization. Leidos built a strong reputation among research scientists decades ago and has maintained that reputation ever since. Maintaining this standing requires several attributes, with two of the most important being collaboration (because great research is rarely done by one person working alone) and flexibility (because there is not one right way to do research).
To conduct quality research, we must understand the ways research can be flawed and follow methodology to prevent potential issues. It is important to bring as much rigor as possible to a study, to know what can be controlled and what cannot, and to understand how to build an appropriate sample of subjects. Researchers develop these skills through extensive post-graduate training and experience. Of course, when working with the military and other real-world customers, researchers do not always have the luxury of being able to control all the variables, because, for example, the studies might be taking place in operational settings in the field. Researchers must achieve as much rigor as possible with what they have to work with, and knowing how to do that requires specialized skills and experience.
At Leidos, our research teams work diligently to conclude with actionable information as much as possible. In academia, actionable outcomes are not always necessary because the goal is often simply to advance knowledge without needing to apply the results. The research we do at Leidos is intended to improve something or solve a problem for the military or other customers. We aim for our results to help drive decision-making.
What are some of the critical requirements of doing research for the military?
Kaiser: Leidos conducts research to address questions of particular relevance to the military and has done so for more than 30 years. However, what is relevant is constantly changing, and the military requires data and solutions that meet the speed of the mission. For example, military decision-makers cannot wait three years for an answer; they need input to drive decision-making in a month or even a week. Conducting research at that higher tempo requires different approaches and skills, and our staff is both adept at and accustomed to doing this kind of work. The end result is studies that are of immediate value to the military.
The military may also face time and budget constraints. In these scenarios, it is important to listen carefully to what the military customer is trying to accomplish, and focus on what can actually be done given the timeframe, budget, and other constraints. In one example, the military asked us to evaluate a program for developing mindfulness skills in Marines, but in order to do that, we had to be able to insert the equivalent of dozens of hours of mindfulness training into a few hours of the Marines’ already tight training schedule. Despite the limitations imposed by this imperfect setting, we conducted a scientifically valid research study that produced meaningful, actionable information and met the customer’s requirement.
Lastly, conducting research within the military deployment cycle presents unique environmental and research challenges. Our team is skilled in conducting research to address the military’s needs throughout the deployment cycle—from serving on an active deployment, to preparing to reintegrate into the home and community environment after deployment, to preparing for redeployment.
What about research for the military that is related to Force Fitness?
Kaiser: The bottom line for maintaining a maximally capable and ready fighting force is keeping Service members healthy and fit for duty. Personnel with injuries, disease, or other stresses to their health are not going to be able to perform well or at all. A significant research area for Leidos is human performance. Our research in this area seeks to prevent health problems from taking hold in the first place and to catch health problems early to prevent them from becoming serious. A key component of this research is looking into ways to promote physical, mental, and emotional resilience in Service members so that they are less likely to experience long-term psychological health outcomes such as post-traumatic stress.
Not only are we involved in research that improves warfighter performance overall, we also specialize in studying members of the elite warfighting community and ways to improve their high-intensity training. This sort of training requires huge investments in time, money, and other resources for every fighter who goes through it. Over time, military leaders noted that some trainees were leaving the program because of health-related issues, specifically heat stress injury. At the time, the policy was that if personnel succumbed to heat stress during training, they were immediately disqualified and removed from the training for being susceptible to a problem that could arise during a mission. However, through our research in this area, we demonstrated that heat stress injury is a one-time training anomaly for some personnel and that they are not any more susceptible to heat stress than anyone else. As a result, the policy was changed to allow those suffering heat stress injuries to be re-evaluated, rather than immediately disqualified, thus enabling some to remain in the program. Our research and the resulting policy changes have enabled the reintegration of numerous trainees into the program, thus maximizing manpower and the military’s significant monetary investment in this elite training.
In another example, the military frequently asks us to study and evaluate new types of equipment and, in particular, to determine if the equipment can help minimize the risk of injury. For example, Marines typically carry backpacks in the field that weigh 75 pounds. Our team tested new backpack designs that help reduce stress on the back and neck. We also looked at different types of helmets, as well as armor and other gear that offer significant levels of battle protection, making sure they do not impair performance in theater or lead to injury after long-term use.
We are also expanding our research by conducting physiological monitoring during training in the field, taking advantage of wearable mobile devices to collect data. We can collect some physiological data with relatively inexpensive equipment that everyday consumers use, enabling us to examine how training and field activities affect physiology and performance. The data we collect provides indicators of what works and what does not in training, and measures real-time performance of Service members subjected to physical stressors in the field. We look to capitalize on any new technology that can better facilitate the research process and ultimately help us improve the health, morale, and welfare of military personnel.
What are some other areas of health Leidos research addresses for the military?
Kaiser: Total health and wellness research also encompasses human behavior, morale, and welfare studies. For example, we look closely at the quality and amount of sleep that Service members get under different conditions. Our research shows that when Service members improve their sleep-related behaviors, it makes a real difference in military readiness across the DoD.
We use multiple approaches to investigate ways to prevent and treat mental health and wellness challenges. For example, we are currently developing best practices in combat and operational stress injuries, substance misuse and abuse, suicide and deliberate self-harm, and violence in the workplace and home. We also study the longitudinal impact of military service on the physical and mental health of current and former Service members and their families, and research ways to decrease the stigma that can be attached to mental and emotional problems and treatment.
Another critical area we look at is reducing the incidence of chronic diseases. When large numbers of Service members suffer from chronic disease, military readiness decreases. We routinely study the behavioral, medical, and environmental factors that lead to chronic disease in active duty Service members, as well as how to prevent chronic disease and better ways to treat chronic disease. We also study approaches to smoking cessation and building better nutritional habits.
We do a great deal of work in infectious disease research and epidemiology to understand how diseases might spread through a military population and how diseases can move into the military population from a general population. This work has proven to be especially important in the COVID-19 environment. Like all of our research, our research in this area applies heavy-duty statistical and data analysis to arrive at answers to our questions. We also research vaccines, therapeutics, clinical diagnostics, and detection assays for infectious disease.
At Leidos, our research spans many other areas of study, including exposure to cold temperature and cold water, high-altitude activities, the reproductive health effects of military service, markers of inflammation in traumatic brain injury, burn pit smoke exposure, and ways to quickly assess and monitor warfighters’ injuries and cognitive function.
At the end of the day, a primary goal of any health-related research is to push the results into clinical care, so that it pays off by leading to better clinical decision-making and outcomes, as well as lowering the cost of care. We see this process as a loop, where research suggests solutions, and implementing the solutions provides more data about outcomes and costs, raising new questions that then inform further research, and so on. It is a never-ending process of improvement.