Published: May 14, 2019
James Olson

In May, the Research & Innovation Office welcomed James Olson as the executive director of national security research, a role designed to engage researchers across campus with federal and industry sponsors in this sector. We sat down with Vice Chancellor for Research & Innovation Terri Fiez, to learn more about Olson and national security research. 

Vice Chancellor for Research & Innovation Terri Fiez

National security is widely understood to refer to a variety of dimensions nations must address to provide security, including economic, energy, food and environmental security, as well as resilience to the effects of national disasters. These are areas in which CU Boulder already conducts important research and seeks opportunities to expand its impact on humanity.

What will the executive director of national security research be responsible for?

We’re pleased that James has joined us to help lead this work. As the executive director of national security research, he will be responsible for expanding funding for CU Boulder’s research.

Specifically, he will provide domain expertise to campus, and match interested faculty and researchers with federally funded research opportunities and industry partners. He will also identify challenges, opportunities and innovative solutions to growing our research impact across these sectors.

In parallel with his arrival, we will form a National Security Faculty Advisory Board composed of faculty and researchers with experience and expertise in these areas. Ultimately, he will help position CU Boulder as a valued resource and thought leader for federal and industry initiatives in these sectors.

How and why did the campus decide to put focus on growing national security research?

CU Boulder already contributes significantly in the national security arena.

The process that led to this role began several years ago with an analysis of our research portfolio. We sought to identify areas of strength and new opportunities to grow CU Boulder’s research impact. The analysis revealed our strengths in securing NASA, NSF, Department of Commerce and NIH funding while uncovering opportunities to increase funding through focused efforts with Health and Human Services (HHS), Department of Energy (DOE) and Department of Defense (DOD). James will help us address the DOD opportunity by working with researchers on a strategic plan that builds on our research strengths and leverages our industry partnerships.

The opportunity was identified, then what was next?

With the opportunity identified, we established a national security working group made up of a broad cross section of campus leaders already working in this domain.

This group analyzed considerations and opportunities for increasing our research impact in the national security sector and then proposed a path forward. This resulted in the establishment of James’ role and includes a plan to turn this opportunity into a financially sustainable effort.

You mention existing research strengths. What campus strengths fit within national security?

One example that illustrates how CU Boulder already supports national security relates to international shipping routes. Our nation relies on international shipping routes for raw materials for the U.S. manufacturing economy and for delivering exports to the rest of the world. As the Earth’s magnetic north pole is shifting, it affects the accuracy of navigational systems. Monitoring the shifting of the magnetic north pole and position, navigation and timing are two areas CU Boulder leads through our strengths in earth and environmental sciences and in engineering.

Other CU Boulder research strengths with significant DOD interest include aerospace, cybersecurity, machine learning and quantum.

How will people engage with Olson in this new role?

James brings more than 30 years of experience in strategy, program management and leadership, including 24 years of military service. Most recently, his focus has included entrepreneurial leadership, creating technical solutions and revenue growth for large Fortune 500 companies and supporting fledgling environmental space observation companies.

James plans to meet with faculty and researchers to learn about their research and identify funding and partnership opportunities that match their expertise. For example, he may be able to connect ongoing research in atmospheric and oceanic sciences with a new opportunity with the U.S. Navy, which funds significant research in this area.

In some cases, he will be able to offer opportunities to researchers proactively; alternatively, researchers can request his assistance in identifying funding sources for their work. He also plans to link student opportunities for workforce development through relevant research programs.

What’s the best way for faculty and researchers to connect into this work?

James will be collocated with the Office of Industry Collaboration at Pearl East. His engagement with researchers and faculty across campus, and with potential funders, will frame our strategic focus and grow opportunities. He will start by doing extensive outreach to become acquainted with faculty and researchers who are doing work in key areas. Anyone who would like to reach out directly to James can do so at

We’re really enthusiastic about what we can accomplish by bringing his experience to support our researchers.