What Do They Do There Anyway – MITRE

November 17, 2022

MITRE, if there ever was a well-known company in Bedford, it’s MITRE. Everyone knows someone who works there or who knows someone who worked there. There are currently around 2,000 people who work at the Bedford facility, second only to Hanscom in terms of local employment.

If you ask people, they may have an idea as to what they sort of, maybe do, but defining what they actually do is a little more difficult to explain.  

Let’s explain what MITRE is NOT. These are admittedly some of my own ill-informed perceptions.

First: MITRE is NOT associated with MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), although it is a spin-off of MIT, or more accurately, of Lincoln Labs which is part of MIT. 

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Another thing I get wrong is the name. The name MITRE is not an acronym. I thought it stood for Massachusetts Institute of Technology Research and Engineering, but it doesn’t. The creation of James McCormack, an early board member, the MITRE designation was intended as a stand-alone name that sounded evocative.

Second: they are not part of the Air Force. With Hanscom AFB so close, I always thought in some way they were part of the Air Force. They do work with the Air Force, but that is just one of their many sponsors.   

Ok, so now that we know what they’re not, what do they do there anyway?

MITRE operates six of the 42 federally funded research and development centers (FFRDC) located throughout our nation. What is an FFRDC? Here is how the government defines them: The federal government supports research and development (R&D) that is conducted by a wide variety of performers, including federally owned and operated laboratories, universities, private companies, and other research institutions. A special class of research institutions referred to as federally funded research and development centers, or FFRDCs, are owned by the federal government, but operated by contractors, including universities, other nonprofit organizations, and industrial firms. FFRDCs are intended to provide federal agencies with R&D capabilities.

The history of FFRDC’s goes back to the end of World War II. The war effort included using scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and other specialists who were involved in the massive war effort in unprecedented ways. Their work led to technology breakthroughs in radar, aircraft, computing, and most famously, the development of nuclear weapons through the Manhattan Project. The end of the war did not end the need for organized research and development in support of the government.  

After World War II, the Cold War became the new reality. Defense industry officials and their scientific advisors advanced the idea of a systematic approach to research, development, and acquisitions. From this idea arose the concept of FFRDCs – private entities that would work almost exclusively on behalf of the government.

MITRE’s new sign in front of their Bedford, MA campus in Oct. 1963. (Source: https://www.mitre.org/)

MITRE began operating one of those FFRDCs after spinning off from the MIT Lincoln Laboratory in 1958 and the campus was built here in Bedford a year later. Their first project was sponsored by the Air Force and focused on delivering a new air defense system to the military. MITRE’s mission was to provide a bridge across the academic research community and industry to design the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) “an automated control system for collecting, tracking, and intercepting enemy bomber aircraft.” SAGE was used by NORAD well into the 1980s. (Bedford Explained Podcast #3: Nike Missiles in Bedford, part of SAGE)

In the early 1960s, it was clear that MITRE’s deep technical expertise and capabilities had applications beyond just the military and they began work on civilian air-traffic control systems. As electronic command and control needs proliferated, in 1963 the organization established a Washington-area office in addition to its Bedford facility. 

Ok, what do they do there now? MITRE’s mission statement is ”Solving Problems for a Safer World” and that really is what they set out to do. In 2012, Fast Company published an article titled “MITRE, The most important company you’ve never heard of.” From their early roots developing an advanced air-defense system for the Department of Defense to their long-standing involvement with the aviation sector,  their mission is to serve in the public interest – as they partner across government and industry in the fields of health, cyber, justice, veterans affairs, social innovation, government modernization, security and intelligence, and so much more.  

I spoke with Kathleen Federico about today’s MITRE. She is the Senior Vice President and chief people, brand, and communications officer at MITRE. Federico has been at the company for about four years and was excited to tell the story of what they do. She went on to say, “At MITRE, we are united through our mission of solving problems for a safer world and it is this single, clear mission that enables us to navigate the complex needs of our sponsors and differentiate ourselves through the value and impact that we deliver.” She continued, “being a non-profit allows us to bring people together in ways others can’t – serving as that critical, objective connecter at the intersection of government, academia, and industry.” 

“Our work with the airline industry is a prime example of our impact. The airline industry is incredibly competitive, but we were well-positioned to bring the industry together and get tangible safety improvements made, with the ASIAS  (Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing) project.” 

MITRE’s facilities are also top-notch with more than 30 labs at their Bedford campus alone – and they recently broke ground on a new lab at Bedford with the goal of accelerating maritime technology development. https://thebedfordcitizen.org/2021/11/mitres-ceremonial-groundbreaking-for-bluetech-lab/  Federico said, “this will really help with marine research, and allow companies and universities to test products in a saltwater environment without incurring the expense of field trials.”

Renderings of the exterior and interior of MITRE’s BlueTech Lab ~ Courtesy image (c) MITRE Corp., 2021 all rights reserved

As an organization that serves in the public interest, MITRE has a long history of volunteer efforts and giving back to the communities they live and work in. As part of that effort, they are deeply vested in the next generation of problem-solvers and innovators. They have an extensive internship program, hosting as many as 600 interns a year as well as funding National Merit Scholarships. Their website is filled with stories on how they give back.

Many MITRE staff mentor students in high school through graduate school by using the 40 hours of paid civic time that MITRE provides to all their employees. In addition, MITRE staff are mentoring students as they complete capstone or senior design projects, as well as through other collaborative research efforts.

Specifically here in Bedford, MITRE was one of the first companies to get involved with the Dollars for Scholars program, starting back in 1966. I reached out to Ron Stewart, the CSF historian. Here’s what Ron said about MITRE’s support of the CSF program:

“CSF historical records reflect MITRE’s very longstanding support for the Dollars for Scholars program beginning in 1966. The first Dollars for Scholars scholarships were awarded in 1965 when our students were organized to solicit donations door-to-door. 

“MITRE’s initial support offered a financial scholarship to a graduating senior. Around 1994-95, MITRE changed a corporate policy from offering financial support to one that was services based support (such as printing support) for community organizations”

Students ‘Dialing for Dollars’ during Bedford’s annual scholarship telethon

“The Door-to-Door solicitation program was changed after 1985 and became the annual Phone-a-thon, initially held by Bedford headquartered company APEC (Analytical Systems and Engineering Corp.) beginning in 1986 and then Millipore in 1995. MITRE became the host company for the Phone-a-thon in 1996 and has continued annually through 2020. Over these years they have also printed our solicitation letters. We switched to the Mail-a-thon format for 2021 and 2022 due to Covid restrictions but MITRE continued printing all our Mail-a-thon solicitation letters.” 

So that’s what they do. Let us know if there are other companies you’re curious about. Also, we will be writing a Bedford Explained story on the history of the Dollars for Scholars program

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