Strengthening the University of Florida’s national security and defense research program

FINS Director Dr. Damon Woodard

When people hear the words “national security,” their minds might quickly go to three-initialed agencies, clandestine operations, and men in dark suits wearing earpieces. But Damon Woodard, Ph.D., director of the Florida Institute for National Security (FINS) at the University of Florida, envisions something different: jobs and research.

The FINS team – which includes Woodard and Associate Director Domenic Forte, Ph.D. – is an integral part of a groundbreaking $992,000 initiative at UF called Charting the Course to Preeminence in National Security Leadership. Support for the project, which is one of UF President Ben Sasse’s Strategic Funding Initiatives, comes from the $130 million in funding that UF received from the Florida Legislature last year.

“We want to position UF as a leader in national security research and defense, policymaking, and workforce development,” Sasse said. “We’re establishing an AI-focused, campus-wide national security program that will strengthen our partnerships with federal agencies and greatly enhance our research efforts.”

A partnership between the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering, the Office of Government and Community Relations, and the Hamilton Center, the initiative aims to propel UF to the forefront of national security research, and to create a generational shift in how the university approaches national security as an institution.

A Three-Pronged Approach

An initiative this broad and transformational naturally has several thrusts that need to work together synergistically.

The first thrust involves the development of a strategic roadmap, aimed at establishing a university-wide national security program that is focused on AI. The goal is to secure federal funding through substantial defense and intelligence research contracts and grants. The second thrust includes strategizing how to help UF build a foundation for a successful national security and defense research and policy formulation program.

The first two elements of the initiative are inextricably linked, as they both will be led by an external consultant. Together, these efforts will not only cement UF’s position as a leader in national security and defense but also contribute to the larger research and policy-making landscape within academia.

The Clearable Talent Pipeline

The third thrust of the project is known as the Clearable Talent Pipeline. Simply put, the pipeline is a means of getting UF students into jobs requiring security clearances as fast and efficiently as possible. Perhaps familiar from spy thrillers, security clearances are special statuses granted to individuals that allow them access to classified information or restricted areas after completing thorough background checks.

These clearances are not given easily or quickly. According to a 2021 report from the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, a lack of AI talent in the federal workforce is a significant national security issue. Clearly, graduates with AI experience who are already cleared to work in classified areas would be very attractive to federal employers.

Given UF’s current emphasis on AI at all levels of the curriculum, the institution is well-positioned to produce graduates who are extremely well-qualified for federal intelligence jobs. And, with the Clearable Talent Pipeline, Woodard and the FINS team intend to move a small number of students (15 or so) through the pipeline each year so that they can be pre-cleared and ready to work by graduation. This cohort of students will participate in monthly seminars, internships, and exclusive job fairs, and conduct undergraduate research with FINS faculty members.

The program is of particular interest to veterans, as they often have security clearances that are “paused” after they leave the service (but they can quickly restart their clearance). Additionally, there are federal loan forgiveness programs that wipe out student debt after 10 years of service in a federal job.

Serving the public good in an area of critical national need – all while assisting veterans and helping students deal with college debt – makes the FINS Clearable Talent Pipeline a winning proposition. As the other thrusts of the initiative progress, the program will only grow more successful with time and resources.

For more information on the project, including applications to the program, visit
More information, including program application, is available at the FINS website.