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The World According to DARPA

The most famous name in American innovation today isn’t Apple or Google. It’s DARPA. Here’s why

4 min read

Regina Dugan
Photo: Michael Temchine/The New York Times/Redux

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The most famous name in American innovation today isn’t Apple or Google. Nor is it Facebook, Boeing, or Intel.

The iconic American innovator is a government agency that neither earns a profit nor sells a single consumer product. That DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, runs with the big dogs of commercial innovation reflects the importance of science and technology to national security. War, not necessity, is the mother of invention.

But there’s also a deeper lesson: Less can be more. The Pentagon spends more than US $75 billion on R&D annually; DARPA’s share is less than $3 billion. By comparison, Ford and GM each spend more on R&D than DARPA. So do Intel, Microsoft, and Cisco. Merck does too.

Regina DuganRegina Dugan: The first female director of DARPA pushed the agency to bet on technologies that benefit society as well as the U.S. military.Photo: Michael Temchine/The New York Times/Redux

Since its inception as the Advanced Research Projects Agency in the late 1950s, the agency has gotten a lot of bang for its buck by placing shrewd bets on a variety of high-potential areas. None paid off bigger than the ARPANET, a communications architecture originally conceived to protect U.S. networks against a Soviet strike. Eventually, that network led to the Internet. The agency, later renamed to underscore its military orientation, became legendary.

During the past decade, DARPA lost its mojo. In the mid-2000s, at the height of the Iraq and Afghan wars, the agency accepted too many combat tasks, which consumed its attention and resources. I recall listening to Anthony Tether, DARPA’s director at the time, complain about the difficulties of inventing technologies to thwart roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dozens of solutions were tried; all failed after the attackers made adjustments. 

Distracted by the immediate, DARPA found itself unable to spend hundreds of millions of budgeted dollars. Contracts took longer to ink, there were fewer bold projects, and grants to universities fell by half.

Three years ago, DARPA began a welcome return to its roots under the leadership of Regina Dugan, who became the first female director of the agency in July 2009. Dugan immediately sought to award grants more quickly and pursue “moon shots” with high-potential payoffs for the entire nation, not just the “mini‑society,” as she called it, of the military. 

Some examples of DARPA’s new goals that have “cascading” benefits include technologies that would enable us to fly anywhere on the planet in a single hour, grow vaccines in plants to protect against pandemics, and build a robot that runs faster than a cheetah. 

To be sure, Dugan’s legacy will not be known for some years, but she put her stamp on an agency that few even realized had gone dangerously off course. The secret to her early success, as she stated, amounted to this:

Cool Factor: Part of DARPA’s new push is to leverage “democratized, crowd-sourced innovation,” as Dugan told the U.S. Congress two years ago. To ignite interest, DARPA rolls out a stream of contests open to virtually everyone. These popular contests create buzz for the agency, which in turn attracts talent. The agency relies on a mere 120 program officers, who rotate through on three-year terms. That creates a constant pressure to replenish what Dugan called “the DARPA army of technogeeks.”

Test: In a departure from DARPA history, Dugan said the Pentagon ought to move from a “buy then make” practice, which leads to cost overruns and faulty systems galore, to a “make then buy” approach, which allows manufacturing scale to occur after a system has proved its mettle. 

Target: Dugan seemed more aware than her predecessors of the crucial importance of choosing the right targets—where the benefits are wide and progress is possible. In the case of hypersonic flight, she set a speed target of Mach 20 (20 times the speed of sound). Recently, the agency reported that an unmanned “boost-glide maneuvering vehicle,” achieved “fully aerodynamically controlled flight at Mach 20” for a period of 3 minutes before it was lost. As Kaigham J. Gabriel, then DARPA’s deputy director, testified to Congress [PDF] in February, “There’s no way to learn to fly at Mach 20 unless you build…and fly.” 

DARPA clearly isn’t infallible. While competing nations concentrate their best and brightest on commercial innovations, DARPA could become a symbol of how American ingenuity lost its way. Or even worse, DARPA could become so successful that the private sector devours its best brains. 

Which may explain why Dugan was hired by Google in March.

About the Author

Photo of G. Pascal Zachary

G. Pascal Zachary is a professor of practice at the Consortium for Science Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University. He is the author of Showstopper!: The Breakneck Pace to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft (The Free Press, 1994), on the making of a Microsoft Windows program, and Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century (The Free Press, 1997), which received IEEE’s first literary award. Zachary reported on Silicon Valley for The Wall Street Journal in the 1990s; for The New York Times, he launched the Ping column on innovation in 2007. The Scientific Estate is made possible through the support of Arizona State University and IEEE Spectrum.

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