The risk-taking US agency remaking the world we live in

Darpa has been successfully backing innovative research for the US for five decades

A US stealth bomber approaches for mid-air refuelling: stealth aircraft are one of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s biggest success stories. Photograph: Reuters/Hyungwon Kang

A US stealth bomber approaches for mid-air refuelling: stealth aircraft are one of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s biggest success stories. Photograph: Reuters/Hyungwon Kang

 

The US government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) is involved in many different areas because the creation and prevention of strategic surprise is by definition a wide-ranging area itself. How many unknown unknowns can be defended against (or created) unless you’re looking into . . . well everything?

Its total annual budget is around $3 billion (€2.5 billion), which is huge when compared to Ireland’s overall research budget of €730 million. Not, of course, that it’s a fair comparison.

Darpa doesn’t operate like most funding agencies (or even sovereign nations for that matter). For starters, it’s only interested in the particular. You can forget about long-term, broadstroke research projects. It backs research with specific outcomes that tend not to last much longer than four years.

“They are looking for revolutionary as opposed to evolutionary progress,” says Howard Shrobe, principal research scientist at MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, who is currently involved with a number of Darpa-funded research projects.

“They have a long-standing culture of taking big risks and empowering the programme managers (PMs) of their research projects. It can be a long and arduous process to be considered the best PM for the job, and several levels of scrutiny must be passed. But once you’ve been blessed to run a programme, you’re given a lot of autonomy.”

PMs can come from academia or industry, while about 10 per cent tend to come directly from the armed forces.

Shrobe likens Darpa funding to a venture capitalist backing a start-up. “They want to empower you to go at it as full force as best you can. As long as you’re heading in the right direction, they’ll avoid unnecessary red tape and try to keep the project agile.”

Successes

Soviet Union

Ever since, it has been working in numerous fields and has branched out in other directions through groups such as the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (Arpa-E).

“My own feeling is they may be the most innovative organisation in the US,” says Michael Belfiore, author of The Department of Mad Scientists: How Darpa Is Remaking Our World from the Internet to Artificial Limbs. “We take for granted so many of their innovations.”

“They have funded cutting-edge research in areas like electronics, ICT, biomedicine and materials,” says Professor Lokesh Joshi from NUI Galway who recently co-received funding from the European Defence Agency for research being developed to protect soldiers against chemical warfare. “What Darpa funds is outside the box, non-linear future research.”

Lots of funding agencies are conservative, have numerous academic reviews and ultimately take a long time deciding who will get money for what.

“If Darpa likes it, they’ll fund it,” says Joshi. “They’re fast moving and very open-minded about what is possible in the future. Google, Microsoft, Intel, all these companies get funding to constantly develop software and hardware. They have been the key agency for most leading technologies used by US Defense in the last 50 years.”

Some of the most well-known Darpa-backed research success stories include stealth aircraft, GPS, the internet and drone technology. In many cases, these innovations were not necessarily looked upon favourably by their original customers.

“When the stealth aircraft was first proposed, the US Air Force was against it,” says Shrobe. “The same was the case for GPS. You have to remember this was a pilot culture and they didn’t welcome any new technology which might threaten their livelihoods. So they were against any forms of remotely controlled air vehicles.”

Its willingness to fund high-risk ventures which may not always be popular, however, makes it attractive to researchers with a less commercial outlook.

“Darpa is not industry-focused,” says Stefan Decker, director of the Insight Centre for Data Analytics at NUI Galway, who conducted Darpa-funded research at Stanford University. “It’s rather contradictory because, on the one hand there’s no pressure to produce short-term relevant industrial results. But there is pressure to produce something working, to not simply produce work on a purely theoretical level. You must be able to show something novel.”

Autonomy

“If you compare them to another typical US government agency responsible for innovation like Nasa [which was set up around the same time and for many of the same reasons as Darpa] you’ll see some big differences between the two,” says Belfiore.

“Nasa is bureaucracy-bound and frequently keeps the same people on for decades. There’s a strong impetus to maintain the status quo, and that is reflected in the kind of work they’re doing today. Darpa consciously avoided that trap by deliberately rotating staff every few years.”

Independence and autonomy were at the heart of its inception. “The director reports directly to the US secretary of defense,” says Belfiore. “That’s a hallmark of Darpa: not a lot of channels to pass through. It is one of the keys to its ongoing success.”

Outsourcing

“To use the Nasa example once more, they own their infrastructure,” says Belfiore. “So even if they wanted to shift their focus, they couldn’t just abandon one approach and look for another. It would be too much of a drain on their resources. Darpa doesn’t have that problem. If they want to switch gears, they just offer grants to someone else.”

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