An official website of the United States Government 
Here's how you know

Official websites use .gov

.gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS

A lock ( lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Face of Defense: Science, Service Twin Passions for DOD Engineer

The man responsible for the oversight and advocacy of the Defense Department's science and technology enterprise retired after 50 years of government service, including 20 years in the Air Force.

Steven G. Wax, who performed the duties of the assistant secretary of defense for science and technology in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, retired from his DOD duties this month.   

Steven G. Wax
A person in business attire poses for photo.
Steven G. Wax
Steven G. Wax, performing the duties of assistant secretary of defense for science and technology, poses for a photo in the center courtyard of the Pentagon, March 14, 2024.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Alexander Kubitza, DOD
VIRIN: 240314-D-PM193-1004Y
Department: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering
Job Title: Performing the Duties of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Science and Technology

In that job, he's had oversight of the workforce, laboratory infrastructure, federally funded research and development centers, and university-affiliated research centers. He also oversees a broad portfolio of programs, including basic research, small business innovation research and technology transfer.    

Wax was born in Chicago in 1950. When he was nine months old, the family moved to Massachusetts, where he grew up and eventually attended the University of Massachusetts and received a Bachelor of Science in chemical engineering.   

Later Wax would go on to earn a Master of Science in chemical engineering from the University of Illinois. 

Wax's family has a history of military service. During World War II both his father and an uncle served in the Navy, and another uncle served in the Marine Corps. 

After serving in the Air Force for four years, he was presented with an opportunity to remain in the service and earn a doctorate in ceramic engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology. 

Two people in Air Force uniforms shake hands. The airman on the right wears a pinned medal.
Air Force Maj. Steven G. Wax
Air Force Maj. Steven G. Wax is awarded the Defense Meritorious Service Medal.
Photo By: Courtesy of Steven G. Wax
VIRIN: 850316-O-D0439-001Z
A person in an Air Force uniform sitting at a table laughs.
Air Force Maj. Steven G. Wax
Air Force Maj. Steven G. Wax laughs during a meeting at work (date and location not known).
Photo By: Courtesy of Steven G. Wax
VIRIN: 840316-O-D0439-001Y
Wax retired from the Air Force as a chemical and material engineer in 1993; he then started a second career as a DOD civilian employee.   

Urges Youths to Consider Service    

As a youngster, Wax said he always had an interest in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.   

He said he strongly encourages young people with similar interests to consider the military as an option, as well as DOD civilian or DOD contractor. For those not interested in STEM, the military has numerous other jobs, he said.    

A person in an Air Force uniform poses for photo in front of a U.S. flag.
Air Force Maj. Steven G. Wax
Air Force Maj. Steven G. Wax poses for an official photo.
Photo By: Courtesy of Steven G. Wax
VIRIN: 810316-O-D0439-001Y
Being in the military or working as a civilian employee or contractor are some of the best ways of supporting U.S. national security and being a good citizen, he said.   

For those with STEM skills, Wax acknowledged that salaries in the private sector are often more than in DOD, but that disadvantage can be offset with paid training and education, as well as scholarships, tuition assistance and the GI Bill.  A benefit for Wax was that the Air Force gave him the chance to complete his doctorate.  

Wax said he decided to keep working for DOD after his Air Force retirement because DOD gives its workers more autonomy and responsibility — as well as the freedom to be creative and take some calculated risks — than the commercial sector. 

"We take it for granted that technology will be there when we fight the next war, and if it's not there, we'll get it from the commercial world. But history has taught us that most of those advances came from the Defense Department and really made a difference," he said.  

The work that DOD engineers and scientists do is "grossly underappreciated" in America today, he said. Lasers, stealth technology, artificial intelligence derived from early expert systems, the internet, vaccines, improved prosthetics and GPS were all developed in military laboratories with government funding.   

Commercial, off-the-shelf items sometimes prove useful to the military, but most items for military use are not available from industry. That's why the department's research and development is so critical, he said.   

Leadership Philosophy   

Wax said some of his mentors taught him the importance of team building. Sometimes, team dynamics are such that close supervision isn't necessary. The best thing to do in such cases is to get out of the way, and give them room to succeed, while also providing them protection from supervisors who might stymie innovation.   

Occasionally, one needs to step in and ensure things are going the way they should. This involves good, two-way communication with realistic goals and expectations, he said.   

People wearing jackets and gloves observe a machine in a cold room.
Cold Research
Steven G. Wax, right, performing the duties of assistant secretary of defense for science and technology, and Defense Department Manufacturing Technology Director Tracy Frost review technology being demonstrated during the Office of the Secretary of Defense ManTech Program's Point-of-Need Challenge. The event was held at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center's Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Hanover, N.H., Dec. 7, 2023.
Photo By: Justin Campfield, Army
VIRIN: 231207-A-PM693-8191Y
Two people wearing jackets and gloves look at a machine.
Cold Review
Steven G. Wax, performing the duties of assistant secretary of defense for science and technology, and Elisa Peters, front, a senior program manager with Advanced Manufacturing Integration for the Office of the Secretary of Defense Manufacturing Technology, review technology being demonstrated at an event held at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center's Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Hanover, N.H., Dec. 7, 2023.
Photo By: Justin Campfield, Army
VIRIN: 231207-A-PM693-8140Y
Wax provided his recipe for the ideal worker. 

"It's really important to have people on the inside who are competent, passionate about defense and passionate about science and technology, because otherwise, the right things don't get done right," he said.  

While Wax has worked in the laboratory as a research engineer, most of his career has been spent leading teams with titles such as chief scientist, technical advisor, director and program manager at numerous Air Force and defense organizations.  

Career Highlights 

Wax emphasized that all the projects he worked on involved teamwork, so he couldn't take all the credit. Projects he worked on have included helping develop ceramics for use in high temperature materials, such as jet aircraft. Their usage gives aircraft higher performance and efficiency.  He did this work from 1983 to 1986 at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency while in the Air Force.  

Wax returned to DARPA as a civilian from 1994 to 2006. While there, he helped to develop improved prosthetics that provide actuation feedback to the user by utilizing advances in microelectronics and neurology. 

This prosthetics project took place in the years following the terrorist attack on 9/11, leading to the Global War on Terror. Many service members lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan from improvised explosive devices so Wax assisted in the development of improved prosthetics. "We brought together advances in microelectronics, advances in actuation and advances in neurology," he said. 

Additionally, the work he did at DARPA involved program management.  

"You fund other people in industry or academia to do the work. You're responsible for the quality of the work and what areas to work on and invest in and who should be funded. I would say it was a very large program we ran and it made a huge impact," he said.   

Wax's work in program management at DARPA eventually led to Wax later becoming a DARPA office director, overseeing 22 program managers.  

Over the course of his 50-year career, Wax said there has been enormous progress in many areas, such as material development using sensors and advanced computer modeling to accelerate the pace of research and development, to gain better insights into the process, and produce better results.   

A machine is displayed.
Carbon Cylinder
A carbon cylinder with thin film sensors is shown.
Photo By: NASA
VIRIN: 090903-O-D0439-001Y
An engine in a laboratory fires.
Combustion Liner Ceramic
Combustion liner ceramic with zirconia coating on rocket engine.
Photo By: NASA
VIRIN: 090303-O-D0439-001Y
He said DOD is already using artificial intelligence and other approaches to research and development, so this is an exciting time for young people to consider serving in the military or joining the civilian workforce. 

One of Wax's frustrations is that industry — particularly small companies and startups — see impediments to obtaining defense work and long waiting times for their employees' clearances.   

However, things are moving in the right direction under the leadership of Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, he said. 

"I am confident that the investments in the department's science and technology program we make now, and in the future, will plant the seeds of new capabilities for defense and open up brand new commercial markets we have yet to imagine," Wax said. 

More About Wax   

As Wax's tenure at the Pentagon comes to a close, his dedication to mission and technical expertise will be missed across the department. 

Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Heidi Shyu, to whom Wax reported during his tenure at R&E, said she most appreciated Wax's passion for public service.  

"With his acumen as a retired Air Force officer, Steve could have done anything with his career," Shyu said. "Yet, he chose to serve America for a second time. That decision has had a lasting impact on our military's technological edge and serves as an inspiration for young people to choose a lifetime of service." 

Kevin Geiss, who recently worked for Wax in his current position, said of him: "It has been said that there are no limits to what one can achieve when your boss has your back. I certainly felt empowered as part of Steve's team. Yet, it seemed like Steve was so much more than support. Often, he was out in front, breaking down barriers and taking the first arrow. So, I guess, you could say he had all angles covered for us." 

A person in business attire stands at a lectern and speaks into a microphone.
Steven G. Wax
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Science and Technology Steven G. Wax recognizes Technology Transfer professionals during the George Linsteadt Awards Ceremony at the Pentagon, Nov. 3, 2023.
Photo By: Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jack Sanders, DOD
VIRIN: 231103-D-XI929-1006Y

Wax's awards include the George Kimball Burgess Memorial Award (material science) and the Secretary of Defense Medal for Outstanding Public Service.  

In retirement with his wife Maura in Reston, Virginia, Wax plans to have more time for hobbies such as hiking, guitar playing, tennis and computer game programming for the grandchildren. He has one son, three stepdaughters and eight grandchildren.

Wax said he's been blessed with having a great career, working with wonderful people and being at the right place at the right time. 

Related Stories