The DARPA Model for Transformative Technologies: Perspectives on the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
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The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has played a remarkable role in the creation new transformative technologies, revolutionizing defense with drones and precision-guided munitions, and transforming civilian life with portable GPS receivers, voice-recognition software, self-driving cars, unmanned aerial vehicles, and, most famously, the ARPANET and its successor, the Internet.

Other parts of the U.S. Government and some foreign governments have tried to apply the ‘DARPA model’ to help develop valuable new technologies. But how and why has DARPA succeeded? Which features of its operation and environment contribute to this success? And what lessons does its experience offer for other U.S. agencies and other governments that want to develop and demonstrate their own ‘transformative technologies’?

This book is a remarkable collection of leading academic research on DARPA from a wide range of perspectives, combining to chart an important story from the Agency’s founding in the wake of Sputnik, to the current attempts to adapt it to use by other federal agencies. Informative and insightful, this guide is essential reading for political and policy leaders, as well as researchers and students interested in understanding the success of this agency and the lessons it offers to others.




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Date de parution 09 janvier 2020
Nombre de lectures 5
EAN13 9781783747948
Langue English
Poids de l'ouvrage 1 Mo

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The DARPA Model for Transformative Technologies
The DARPA Model for Transformative Technologies
Perspectives on the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
Edited by William B. Bonvillian, Richard Van Atta, and Patrick Windham
© 2019 William B. Bonvillian, Richard Van Atta, and Patrick Windham. Copyright of individual chapters is maintained by the chapters’ authors.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs license (CC BY-NC-ND). This license allows you to share, copy, distribute and transmit the text; to adapt the text and to make commercial use of the text providing attribution is made to the authors (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). Attribution should include the following information:
William B. Bonvillian, Richard Van Atta, and Patrick Windham (eds.), The DARPA Model for Transformative Technologies Perspectives on the U.S.: Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency . Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers, 2019,
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ISBN Paperback: 978-1-78374-791-7
ISBN Hardback: 978-1-78374-792-4
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DOI: 10.11647/OBP.0184
Cover design: Anna Gatti.
Notes on Contributors
Introduction: DARPA—The Innovation Icon
Patrick Windham and Richard Van Atta
DARPA’s Historical Mission and Organization
DARPA’s Organization and Budget
Important Features of the DARPA Model
The Remainder of this Book
Fifty Years of Innovation and Discovery
Richard Van Atta
The “DARPA Model”
DARPA’s Origins: Strategic Challenges ~1958
Key Elements of DARPA’s Success
Tension Between DARPA Roles
DARPA’s Successes
DARPA’s Role in Creating a Revolution in Military Affairs
Sustaining the DARPA Vision
NSF and DARPA as Models for Research Funding: An Institutional Analysis
Michael J. Piore, Phech Colatat, and Elisabeth Beck Reynolds
I. Methodology and Research Approach
II. Basic Findings
III. Interpretation
The Connected Science Model for Innovation—The DARPA Model
William B. Bonvillian
Introduction: Fundamentals of Defense Technology Development
Innovation Systems at the Personal Level: Great Groups
DARPA as a Unique Model—Combining Institutional Connectedness and Great Groups
Elements of the DARPA Model
The Value of Vision in Radical Technological Innovation
Tamara L. Carleton
The Value of Vision in Radical Technological Innovation
ARPA Does Windows: The Defense Underpinning of the PC Revolution
Glenn R. Fong
Alto’s Offspring
The Rest of the Story
Xerox’s ARPA Brats
Windows on the Future
Rethinking the Role of the State in Technology Development: DARPA and the Case for Embedded Network Governance
Erica R. H. Fuchs
1. Introduction
2. The Developmental Network State
3. The Changing Faces of DARPA
4. Methods
5. Results and Discussion
6. Discussion: the DARPA Program Manager—Embedded Network Agent
7. Conclusions
DARPA’s Process for Creating New Programs
David W. Cheney and Richard Van Atta
General Framework and Typical Patterns of Program Development
Case Studies of the Development of DARPA Programs
Have Blue (Stealth)
Assault Breaker (Standoff Precision Strike)
Amber/Predator (High Altitude Long Endurance UAVs)
Optoelectronics Program
High Definition Systems
Spintronics (Quantum Computing)
Personalized Assistant that Learns (PAL)
Topological Data Analysis
Revolutionizing Prosthetics
Findings, Conclusions, and Key Observations
Concluding Thoughts
Some Questions about the DARPA Model
Patrick Windham
DARPA—Enabling Technical Innovation
Jinendra Ranka
The Role of DARPA
DARPA and Innovation?
Developing and Running DARPA Programs
Important Questions to Ask
Additional Thoughts on Why DARPA is Needed
A Flexible and Supportive Agency
Program Management at DARPA: A Personal Perspective
Larry Jackel
Getting New Programs Approved
Soliciting and Reviewing Proposals
Managing Programs
Independence, Responsibility, and Accomplishments
Lessons from DARPA for Innovating in Defense Legacy Sectors
William B. Bonvillian
Conclusion: Innovation in the Defense Legacy Sector
ARPA-E and DARPA: Applying the DARPA Model to Energy Innovation
William B. Bonvillian and Richard Van Atta
I. The DARPA Model
II. ARPA-E—A New R&D Model for the Department of Energy
III. The Remaining Technology Implementation Challenge for DARPA and ARPA-E
IV. Conclusion—Brief Summary of Key Points
IARPA: A Modified DARPA Innovation Model
William B. Bonvillian
The DARPA Model in the Context of Innovation Policy
The IARPA Model
Two Challenges to DARPA and its Clones—Manufacturing and Scaling up Startups
Does NIH need a DARPA?
Robert Cook-Deegan
Biomedical Success
Lessons from DARPA’s Experience
Richard Van Atta, Patrick Windham and William B. Bonvillian
Important Features
Creating New Technical Communities
DARPA and the Future
Further Reading
DARPA Documents
General Histories of DARPA
Histories of DARPA’s Contributions to Information Technology
List of Illustrations and Tables
Notes on Contributors
William B. Bonvillian is a Lecturer at MIT, and Senior Director at MIT’s Office of Digital Learning, leading a project on workforce education. From 2006 until 2017, he was Director of MIT’s Washington Office, supporting MIT’s historic role in science policy. He teaches courses on innovation systems at MIT and is coauthor of three books on innovation, Advanced Manufacturing: The New American Innovation Policies (2018), Technological Innovation in Legacy Sectors (2015) , and Structuring an Energy Technology Revolution (2009), as well as numerous articles. Previously he worked for over fifteen years on innovation issues as a senior advisor in the U.S. Senate, and earlier was a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Transportation. He serves on the National Academies of Sciences’ standing committee for its Innovation Policy Forum and chairs the Committee on Science and Engineering Policy at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). He was elected a Fellow of the AAAS in 2011. He has a BA from Columbia, an MAR from Yale and a JD from Columbia.
Tamara Carleton , PhD, is the CEO and founder of Innovation Leadership Group LLC and lead author of the Playbook for Strategic Foresight and Innovation (2013), a hands-on guide that has been used by hundreds of the world’s most innovative companies to make their teams more successful. She is the executive director of the Silicon Valley Innovation Academy at Stanford University and a visiting professor at the Osaka Institute of Technology in Japan. Previously she was an Innovation Fellow with the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, a Fellow with the Bay Area Science and Innovation Consortium, and a Fellow at the Foundation for Enterprise Development. She has worked as a management consultant at Deloitte Consulting LLP, specializing in innovation, customer experience, marketing strategy, and enterprise applications. A multidisciplinary scholar, Dr. Carleton holds a doctorate in mechanical engineering from Stanford University, a master’s of science from Syracuse University, and a bachelor’s degree from The George Washington University.
David W. Cheney is a consultant and Managing Partner of Technology Policy International, a firm that provides analyses of science, technology, and innovation policy. He is the former Director of the Center for Science, Technology and Economic Development at SRI International, where his work focused on planning and evaluating science, technology, and innovation programs and institutions, primarily in the United States and Middle East. He is also a consultant to the World Bank and has been an adjunct professor at George Mason University. Before joining SRI in 1998, he was a senior executive in the U.S. Department of Energy, serving as director of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board and advisor to the Deputy Secretary on industrial partnerships and national laboratories. He previously was a senior associate with the Council on Competitiveness, and an analyst with the Congressional Research Service. He has also held positions with the Internet Policy Institute, the Optoelectronics Industry Development Association, the Competitiveness Policy Council, and the Institute for Policy Science at Saitama University in Japan. He has a PhD in public policy from George Mason University, a MS in Technology and Policy from MIT and a BS in Geology & Biology from Brown University.
Phech Colatat is Assistant Professor of Strategy at the Olin Business School, Washington University in St Louis. He is a business school-trained sociologist with interests in healthcare, R&D, and strategic management. Motivated by alarming trends in the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), his current research examines the way organizational and social network processes affects the diagnostic process. He completed his PhD at the MIT Sloan School of Management.
Robert Cook-Deegan , PhD, is a professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, and with the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University. He founded and directed Duke’s Center for Genome Ethics, Law & Policy (2002-12), and Duke-in-Washington through June 2016. Prior to Duke, he was with the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (1991-2002); National Center for Human Genome Research (1989-90); and congressional Office of Technology Assessment (1982-88). His research interests include science policy, health policy, biomedical research, cancer, and intellectual property. He is the author of The Gene Wars: Science, Politics, and the Human Genome (1994) and more than 250 other publications.
Glenn R. Fong is an associate professor of global studies at Thunderbird School of Global Management. He is also the academic director of the school’s Master of Arts in Global Affairs and Management. His areas of expertise include technology, global trade and industrial policies of the U.S., Japan and China, government and business relations and international political economy. Of Chinese-American ancestry, Fong has contributed commentaries and monographs to Business and Politics , Issues in Science and Technology , International Security , International Studies Quarterly , Comparative Politics , and the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management . In 1996, Fong authored Export Dependence vs. the New Protectionism: Trade Policy in the Industrial World . He has served as a consultant to the National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (now METI), and IBM Corporation’s e-Business Technology division. He earned his BA at the University of California, Berkeley, and MA and PhD degrees in government from Cornell University. Earlier in his career, he was an assistant professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago and a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Business Administration.
Erica R. H. Fuchs is a Professor in the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, and a Research Associate with the National Bureau of Economic Research. Her research focuses on the development, commercialization and global manufacturing of emerging technologies, and national policy in that context. She was the founding Faculty Director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Manufacturing Futures Initiative—an initiative across six schools aimed to revolutionize the commercialization and local production of advanced manufactured products. Over the past decade, Dr. Fuchs has played a growing role in national and international meetings on technology policy, including being one of twenty-three participants in the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology workshop that led to the creation of the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership, and serving on the expert group that supported the White House in the 2016 Innovation Dialogue between the U.S. and China. In 2012 she was selected a World Economic Forum “Young Scientist” (top 40 under 40 globally.) She currently serves on the National Academies’ National Materials and Manufacturing Board; the Academic Advisory Board for MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society, of which MIT’s Technology Policy Program is a part; the World Economic Forum’s Future of Production Global Futures Council; and the Advisory Editorial Board for Research Policy . Before coming to CMU, Dr. Fuchs completed her PhD in Engineering Systems at MIT in June 2006. She received her Masters and her Bachelor’s degrees also from MIT in Technology Policy (2003) and Materials Science and Engineering (1999), respectively. Dr. Fuchs spent 1999-2000 as a fellow at the United Nations in Beijing, China. She grew up and attended K-12 in the Reading Public School District in Reading, PA. Her work has been published among other places in Science, the Nature journals, Research Policy , and Management Science ; and has been covered on National Public Radio, by Bloomberg, and in the New York Times .
Larry Jackel is President of North-C Technologies, where he does professional consulting in robotics and machine learning. He also currently serves as a Learning Advisor to the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab (SAIL)-Toyota Center for AI Research at Stanford University. From 2003-07 he was a DARPA Program Manager in the IPTO and TTO offices. He conceived and managed programs in Autonomous Ground Robot navigation and Locomotion. For most of his scientific career Jackel was a manager and researcher in Bell Labs and then AT&T Labs. Members of Jackel’s Adaptive Systems Department at Bell Labs laid the foundation for much of the machine learning that dominates AI today. He has also created and managed research groups in microscience and microfabrication, and in carrier-scale telecom services. Jackel was a founder of the Snowbird Workshop on Neural Networks for Computer and led the workshop many years. He was also a founder of the NIPS conferences. He has served as Program Chair for IJCNN. He has also been an organizer of the Frontiers in Distributed Information Systems (FDIS) workshop series. Jackel holds a PhD in Experimental Physics from Cornell University with a thesis in superconducting electronics. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society and the IEEE. He has published over 150 papers and has over twenty patents.
Michael Piore has been on the faculty of the Department of Economics at MIT since 1966, and also currently holds a joint appointment with the Department of Political Science. He is also currently a Visiting Senior Fellow in International and Public Affairs at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. He earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Harvard University, where he wrote his doctoral dissertation under the direction of John T. Dunlop. He is the founding director of the MIT-Mexico Program and former associate director of the Center for Technology, Policy and Industrial Development. He has served as president of the Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics (SASE) and as an elected member of the executive committee of the American Economic Association. He was a MacArthur Prize Fellow (1984-89), a member of the Executive Committee of the American Economic Association (1990-95), and a member of the Governing Board of the Institute for Labour Studies of the International Labour Organization (1990-96).
Jinendra Ranka , PhD, has over twenty-five years of experience in academic, commercial, and government research and development. He was a technical staff member at Bell Labs, Sycamore Networks, and MIT Lincoln Laboratory, and is currently the CEO at JASR Systems. Dr. Ranka served as a program manager in the Strategic Technology Office at DARPA and as a Deputy Office Director at IARPA. He has over 40 publications with over 5,000 citations and numerous patents. Dr. Ranka received his Doctoral degree in Applied & Engineering Physics from Cornell University in 1997 and his Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1991. Dr. Ranka is a fellow of the Optical Society of America and is known for his discovery of supercontinuum generation in optical fibers.
Elisabeth B. Reynolds is the executive director of the MIT Industrial Performance Center and a lecturer in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. Reynolds works on issues related to systems of innovation, regional economic development, and industrial competitiveness. She is a member of the Massachusetts Advanced Manufacturing Collaborative as well as the Northeast Clean Energy Council. Her current research focuses on the pathways that U.S. entrepreneurial firms take in scaling production-related technologies, as well as advanced manufacturing, including the globalization of the biomanufacturing industry. Before coming to MIT for her PhD, Reynolds was the director of the City Advisory Practice at the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City (ICIC), a non-profit founded by Professor Michael Porter, focused on job and business growth in urban areas. Reynolds has an AB from Harvard in government and was a Fiske Scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge. She holds an MSc from the University of Montreal in economics and a PhD from MIT in urban and regional studies.
Richard Van Atta ’s career has focused on the national security policy, strategy, and technological capabilities of the United States for the Department of Defense, chiefly for the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) of the White House, and the Intelligence Community. From 1983 to his retirement in 2018, he was a senior research staff member of the Strategy, Forces and Resources Division (SF&RD), the Science and Technology Policy Institute (STPI) and the Science and Technology Division at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), with a focus on innovation for national security. His work at IDA included assessments of the programs and development strategies of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). From 1993 to 1998, he served as Assistant Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Dual Use and Commercial Programs (on temporary assignment from IDA). He also was an adjunct faculty member in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program and the Science, Technology and International Affairs (STIA) program teaching courses on Emerging Technology and Security. Dr. Van Atta has a PhD in Political Science from Indiana University and a BA degree in Political Science from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Patrick H. Windham is a Lecturer in the Public Policy Program at Stanford University and a Partner with Technology Policy International, a consulting firm. In the past he has taught at the University of California’s Washington, DC, center and the University of Maryland. From 1984 until 1997 he served as a Senior Professional Staff Member for the Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space of the United States Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. He helped Senators oversee and draft legislation for several major civilian science and technology agencies and focused particularly on issues of science, technology, and U.S. industrial competitiveness. He has served on five committees and roundtables of the U.S. National Academies. Mr. Windham received a BA from Stanford University and a Master of Public Policy degree from the University of California at Berkeley.
The editors are grateful to the authors who have contributed to this volume, and to the publications that originally published their articles and which have agreed to have them reprinted in this volume; each is acknowledged at the outset of each chapter.
Second, the editors wish to thank Peter L. Singer who provided great assistance in compiling this volume.
Third, the editors acknowledge and thank colleagues in Japan. This book is in part based on a briefing book prepared for a workshop at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) in Tokyo on 25 February 2014. This workshop focused on lessons to be learned from the DARPA model as Japanese officials considered the structure of a DARPA variant. The authors particularly wish to thank Professor Atsushi Sunami, who organized that event. Several of the American authors of this book, including all three editors, participated in the workshop.
The editors also wish to thank the many colleagues and current and former DARPA officials who have provided valuable insights into how DARPA works. They also thank ARPA-E and IARPA former officials for their insights.
The editors thank their families for their support and patience as their various studies of DARPA were ongoing. Finally, Patrick Windham wants to particularly thank his spouse, Dr. Arati Prabhakar. In the interest of full disclosure, the editors want to note that Dr. Prabhakar served as the Director of DARPA from July 2012 to January 2017. However, Dr. Prabhakar was not involved in the creation of this book and the viewpoints expressed here should not be construed as representing her views or those of DARPA.
1. Introduction: DARPA—The Innovation Icon
Patrick Windham and Richard Van Atta

© P. Windham and R. Van Atta, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has become an “innovation icon,” widely recognized for playing an important role in the creation and demonstration of many new breakthrough (“disruptive”) technologies. Some of these technologies have strictly military applications, such as stealth and precision-guided munitions. Others are “ dual-use technologies” that have benefited both the civilian world and the Department of Defense. Examples of these technologies include the Internet, Global Positioning System ( GPS) receivers, voice recognition software, advanced semiconductor manufacturing processes, and un-manned aerial vehicles. It is a remarkable record.
This introductory chapter focuses on DARPA’s key features—its mission, organization, linkages to other organizations, and “political design”—and how those features have contributed to its success. Later chapters and the book’s Conclusion suggest some lessons that DARPA’s experience offers for those interested in how this organization has worked over nearly sixty years and for those seeking to create similar technology agencies.
DARPA’s Historical Mission and Organization
DARPA’s Evolution
DARPA has existed for over sixty years and during that time it has evolved, changed, and, on a couple of occasions, come close to being dissolved. It has changed in its organizational structure and in some important operational mechanisms as well. There is no simple singular depiction of DARPA that is accurate because it has changed and adapted based on how the world around it has changed—especially on how the national security environment has changed, but also on what different Presidents and their Administrations have asked of it.
Importantly, even at a given point in time there are what might be termed several DARPAs, as different parts of the organization—as small as it is—have focused on very different things—both technologically and in terms of how they function. This is evident from its early history, as Richard Van Atta outlines:
Indeed DARPA has morphed several times. DARPA has “re-grouped” iteratively—often after its greatest “successes”. The first such occasion was soon after its establishment, with the spinning off of its space programs into NASA. This resulted in about half of the then ARPA personnel either leaving to form the new space agency, or returning to a military service organization to pursue military-specific space programs. A few years later, then DDR&E John S. Foster required ARPA to transition its second largest inaugural program—the DEFENDER missile defense program—to the Army, much to the consternation of some key managers within ARPA. Also early in its history ARPA was tasked to conduct a program of applied research in support of the military effort in Viet Nam. 1
Thus, even by the early 1960s one could say there were three, perhaps four key DARPA thrusts—with the addition of its exploration of new, emerging technologies, such as materials, and the nascent information technologies. As the overview below shows, DARPA’s history has been perturbed by political dynamics as well as the dynamics of the technologies it has pursued. Perhaps the most important hallmark of DARPA has been its adaptability and flexibility to respond to changing circumstances—often extremely rapidly.
DARPA’s Origins: 1958–1970
In October 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, an accomplishment that shocked the United States. Many Americans worried that the country was losing technological leadership to its Cold War adversary.
After the launch of Sputnik, President Dwight Eisenhower followed the advice of Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy and leading scientists, including his science advisors, James Killian and then Dr. George Kistiakowsky, and proposed the creation of what became the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). ARPA was formed just four months after Sputnik on 7 February 1958 through DOD Directive 5105.15 by Secretary McElroy. 2 Herbert York, a Manhattan Project veteran and the first director of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, helped guide the early evolution of ARPA as its first Chief Scientist and then as the Defense Department’s first Director of Research and Engineering.
Initially, the agency focused on three key assignments from the President: space, missile defense, and the detection of nuclear weapons tests. Eisenhower subsequently made it clear that space was to be the realm of a civilian agency, and later, in 1958, Congress and the President created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration ( NASA), a civilian agency which took over the country’s principal space programs, absorbing much of DARPA’s Space Program. The two other Presidential assignments— missile defense and nuclear test detection—continued as the dominant foci for about fifteen years but eventually were moved to other parts of the Department of Defense (DOD).
Also, soon after its founding ARPA took on Project AGILE, as proposed by its Deputy Director, William Godel, which was a decade-long classified program supporting U.S. combat efforts in Vietnam and beyond. In retrospect, much of AGILE was naive, poorly managed and rife with amateurism. The ARPA Directors had little access or knowledge of what AGILE was doing as Godel “was running the AGILE office as his own covert operations shop”. 3 There were important lessons learnt from AGILE (as a program run amok, with little oversight) on what not to do. It was hardly scientific and as an operational program it focused on near-term solutions. It became a key element in defining what DARPA would not be in the battle over competing visions for the agency’s future.
With the quick transfer of the space program to NASA, ARPA spent the rest of the decade focused on missile defense, nuclear test detection and AGILE. However, in the early 1960s another role for ARPA emerged as it began to pursue a set of smaller, technically-focused programs under the general notion of “preventing technological surprise”. Areas initially pursued were materials science, information technology, and behavioral science. In fact, one can argue that ARPA in essence “invented” these as areas of technological pursuit. These began in 1961 under Jack Ruina, the first scientist to direct ARPA, who hired J. C. R. Licklider as the first director of the Information Processing Techniques Office. That office played a vital role in the creation of personal computing and the ARPANET—the basis for the future Internet.
Resuscitation in the 1970s
It is important to note that ARPA in the late 1960s to early 1970s was a troubled agency—a victim of the Vietnam malaise and resource cutbacks that affected all of DOD, and with the additional issue that its post-space program thrusts ( missile defense ( DEFENDER) and nuclear test detection ( VELA)) had essentially run their course. Indeed, as early as 1965, Deputy Secretary of Defense Cyrus Vance, “came to advocate abolishing the Agency”. 4 The 1965–1970 era was a crisis period. DARPA evolved both organizationally and programmatically from this crisis largely due to John S. Foster, who became Director of the Defense Research and Engineering ( DDR&E) 5 in 1965 and remained for eight years. By the mid-1970s DARPA had jettisoned the AGILE program and transitioned DEFENDER to the Army. DARPA was explicitly looking for new directions first under Director Eberhardt Rechtin, who created a Strategic Technologies Office, and then his successor Steven Lukasik, who saw AGILE as “an embarrassment” and closed it down, transitioning parts of it into a new Tactical Technology Office. Thus, by the mid-1970s DARPA had substantially refocused on technology offices and moved away from the original mission-focused assignments. Crucial to this rejuvenation was DARPA taking on a broad new focus aimed at finding technological alternatives to the use of nuclear weapons to respond to the Soviet Union. This was a key imperative stemming from the concerns of President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, and which continued with Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger as a leading proponent under President Gerald Ford. DARPA identified and developed new tactical capabilities based on then emerging technologies through programs on stealth, standoff precision strike, and tactical surveillance via unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
DARPA in the 1980s: Transformative Technology Development and Transition
With this refocusing DARPA survived the axe. Through years of persistent efforts, working with the DDR&E in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), DARPA transitioned these capabilities to the military, creating what Under Secretary of Defense William Perry and Secretary of Defense Harold Brown (under President Jimmy Carter) would call the “ offset strategy”—ways to offset the Soviet Union’s conventional war capabilities and lowering the corresponding risk of nuclear war. These key DARPA programs are among the most important programs in terms of the agency’s impact on defense capabilities and are often touted as DARPA’s impact in ushering in a “revolution in military affairs” evidencing how DARPA helped to transform tactical warfare.
Parallel to DARPA’s transformational programs in military technologies in the 1970s-80s were its programs revolutionizing information technology, stemming from the early 1960s focus of IPTO (Information Processing Technology Office) Director Licklider. ARPA/DARPA fundamentally affected what was to become computer science. President John F. Kennedy and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara became very concerned about a “command and control” communication crisis during the Cuban Missile Crisis; ARPA Director Jack Ruina brought in Licklider to work on it, who saw the problem in a context of evolving computing systems. While one element of this was the ARPANET, this was part of a much broader and increasingly coherent program of research begun under Licklider. His concept of “ man-computer symbiosis” provided a multi-pronged development of the technologies underlying the transformation of information processing from clunky, room-filling, inaccessible mainframe machines to the ubiquitous network of interactive and personal computing capabilities. 6 This transformation continues today in DARPA’s pursuit of cognitive computing, artificial intelligence and robotics—key DARPA thrusts.
DARPA in the 1990s: End of the Cold War
Early in the 1990s, DARPA, as well as the rest of DOD, had to adapt to the fact that the main adversary, the USSR, had collapsed. Thus, the focus of its weapons research had disappeared. Moreover, the U.S. was in a budget crisis partly due to the vast defense spending of the 1980s. The Clinton Administration entered office with the rubric “ dual-use”—technologies that would have both defense and civilian economy payoffs—as one way to make the economy more competitive. Under this approach, DOD could leverage off the civilian sector in cutting costs to develop new technologies. This era of dual-use programs was a major redirection of DARPA and it became highly contentious with elements in Congress. The Technology Reinvestment Project (TRP) was created to partner defense technology developers with commercial firms and universities.
OSD and DARPA worked with the White House to develop this program to continue DARPA’s exploration and development of “breakthrough” technologies in the mode of the information revolution, despite the lack of a peer security adversary. Secretary of Defense William Perry emphasized the dual-use concept. During this period emphasis was heavily on fostering new technologies in information and electronics including advanced sensing, while programs in unmanned systems and precision strike continued. Also, programs in biotechnology were started. At the end of the 1990s, DARPA took on a program in partnership with the Army seeking a radical approach for using robotics for ground combat—the Future Combat System—which ultimately proved to be hugely unsuccessful. It was overly ambitious and rushed into acquisition by the Army, and, after the expenditure of about $20 billion, was eventually cancelled by the Secretary of Defense.
DARPA in the 2000s: War on Terror
The 2000s is the period of DARPA Director Anthony Tether—the longest tenured DARPA Director. Within months of taking the role, the terror attacks of September 11 occurred and DARPA became enmeshed in the “ War on Terror”. The Total Information Awareness (TIA) program became the most notable DARPA response. This became a controversial program as the use of information technologies to identify possible terrorists and terror attacks raised issues of privacy. Tether’s tendency to supervise program managers (PMs) also raised questions about whether DARPA should be inherently bottom-up, PM-driven or more director driven. DARPA also developed programs in sensors and sensor systems to support combat needs in Iraq and Afghanistan. During this period DARPA also developed programs in cognitive computing ( artificial intelligence) and autonomous systems with the “ DARPA Challenge” contests for self-driving cars as highly visible examples initiating the implementation of these technologies. These Challenges were successful in creating interest and incentivizing teams of researchers to demonstrate integrated autonomous capabilities.
DARPA in the 2010s: Technology for Security in a Globalized World
Through the current decade DARPA has continued on a primarily technology focused agenda in which the emphasis is on pursuing technologies that can create technological surprise. However, it recognized that the world of technology has changed considerably with the advent of globalization. Where the U.S. and DOD led in technology development in the past, now there are global competitors pursuing many of the technologies that DARPA had pioneered. At the same time, there is a growing peer competition in the security arena while terrorism is an ongoing concern. Thus, DARPA’s mission of avoiding technological surprise and also creating technological surprise for our adversaries is even more daunting. Under Barack Obama Defense Secretaries Chuck Hagel and Ash Carter, DOD announced a new “Offsets” strategy to attempt to build a new U.S. technological lead as new peer competitors developed capabilities in areas DARPA had created in the previous offset strategy.
DARPA also responded to the era of major advances in life sciences, most visibly, the Human Genome initiatives led by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and their private sector competitor, J. Craig Venter. DARPA had long been conducting some biotechnology research but in 2013 created a new Biological Technologies Office to focus on this area. Fields like synthetic biology created new kinds of threats that needed counters, and DOD’s own massive health care system and injured soldiers from two Middle Eastern wars required new medical responses. While NIH’s research remained largely focused on biology, DARPA’s flexibility enabled it to pursue a “convergence” approach, creating unified research efforts combining engineering, physical and computational sciences with biology for a new research model pursuing new kinds of therapies. In the information domain, DARPA is focusing on artificial intelligence, cognitive computing, and approaches for advancing microelectronics to advance quantum computing and neuro-synaptic processors based on how the brain processes information. With a foundation on previous research in aeronautics and propulsion, DARPA is embarking on a major thrust in hypersonic systems. Meanwhile, growing cyber threats spurred several ambitious DARPA programs in cybersecurity.
Thus, the agency’s technical and security foci have changed with the times, although its mission has remained largely the same:
DARPA’s original mission, established in 1958, was to prevent technological surprise like the launch of Sputnik, which signaled that the Soviets had beaten the U.S. into space. The mission statement has evolved over time. Today, DARPA’s mission is still to prevent technological surprise to the U.S., but also to create technological surprise for our enemies. 7
However, to carry out this mission today the agency must focus on creating and demonstrating breakthrough technologies for national security, in which there are many more highly capable players and where technologies quickly disseminate globally.
DARPA’s Organization and Budget
To achieve its mission of technology leadership DARPA has evolved a highly adaptive and responsive organization. The hallmark of DARPA is agility. At the heart of DARPA are its “technology offices”—the offices where program managers fund the development of new technologies. The agency also has a series of “support offices”, which provide services in areas such as contracting, human resources, legal matters, and accelerating the transition of new technologies to the military services. The number of technology offices and their specific roles change over time. Below are the DARPA’s current technical offices: Biological Technologies Office (BTO) Defense Sciences Office (DSO) Information Innovation Office (I2O) Microsystems Technology Office (MTO) Strategic Technology Office (STO) Tactical Technology Office (TTO)
Sometimes DARPA officials and outside observers informally refer to some of these technology offices as “systems offices”. In the list above, the two systems offices are the Strategic Technology Office (STO) and the Tactical Technology Office (TTO). These offices create new “ proof-of-concept” engineering systems for DOD, such as new unmanned aerial vehicles or small GPS receivers. The goals here are to develop and demonstrate significantly new or improved capabilities and, DARPA hopes, to change people’s minds about what is technically possible. The work sponsored by these systems offices is often inspired by long-term national security challenges, needs, or opportunities.
The “systems offices” and the other technology offices typically fund different types of R&D (Research and Development) performers. In the non-systems offices, many of the R&D performers are in universities or component manufacturers. The systems offices usually fund engineering teams that may include defense companies and government laboratories. However, at times the systems offices encounter technical challenges that lead them to also support fundamental research, and the other technology offices sometimes work on military systems. In practice, the line between non-systems technology offices and systems offices is not rigid.
Each DARPA office has multiple “programs” (the term used to refer to R&D funding activities in specific areas of technology). Program managers propose these programs, get approval and funding from senior DARPA officials, write the funding solicitations, select the R&D performers (sometimes with help from other technical reviewers), and supervise and assist the performers. A program manager may supervise several programs. Typically, a program will have specific technical objectives, a budget of tens of millions of dollars, and will last for three to five years. In many cases, an individual program will fund multiple R&D projects run by different performers, so as to test different technical ideas. Having a good set of diverse technical approaches early on in a program is helpful.
Each DARPA technology office also can fund small “seed” programs, which provide a way for program managers to generate and test new ideas. In recent years, each office also has run an annual “open” competition in which applicants can propose work in areas of technology not covered in the office’s programs. These “open” competitions help generate additional new ideas from the technical community.
DARPA therefore uses a “portfolio” approach: it funds a wide range of R&D programs and also often funds multiple projects within a single program. Its program managers are experts who make thoughtful decisions, but since the R&D focus is high-risk to achieve “high payoff” results, the outcomes are unpredictable and the agency and its program managers invest in a range of promising technologies. Some programs and projects will work while others will not. However, by investing in a number of options, the agency seeks to increase the chances of success while accepting the inherent risk that some research may not succeed.
DARPA itself does not build actual operational prototypes of new systems; it turns over “ proof-of-concept” prototypes to other parts of the defense and commercial worlds—a process that DARPA calls “ technology transition”. 8
At the heart of DARPA are approximately one hundred program managers (“PMs”) and the office directors, deputy office directors, agency director and deputy director who supervise them. While these are all government employees, most are hired using special hiring authorities on a term basis—usually of three to five years. Importantly, none of these are permanent staff—all are in essence temporary, although some individuals’ tenure may get extended by becoming an office director or deputy director. The agency also has approximately one hundred other government employees who provide important services, such as contracting, legal services, human resources, and security, and at any one time it also has several military liaisons. Additionally, contractors support these government employees. Some of these contractors are highly-trained PhD scientists and engineers who provide valuable technical assistance to program managers, and others are support staff.
The agency’s budget for 2019 is $3.427 billion a year. DARPA has no laboratories of its own. It is a funding agency.
Important Features of the DARPA Model
DARPA’s Focus on Ambitious Goals
Ambitious goals
DARPA focuses on ambitious technological goals, not on incremental improvements.
First, DARPA is a technology agency. It funds advanced research to develop or create new technologies, not just to explore science. Its mission is to create valuable new technologies. It can support basic scientific research, but as means toward new technology.
Second, DARPA focuses on ambitious, difficult (“ DARPA Hard”), and potentially revolutionary projects. It does not focus on immediate or incremental improvements in technology. 9 It focuses on trying to achieve significant changes or shifts in technical capabilities.
Third, DARPA seeks to create “breakthrough”, “transformative” or “disruptive technologies”—all terms that are popular today. This means something different than just the creation of novel new devices or tools. Rather, the objective is to create new possibilities and capabilities and particularly seek “change-state” technologies—that is, technologies that significantly change existing capabilities. As a result, the focus is more on outcomes and results rather than the specific character of the technologies that they nurture. So, for example, sometimes an entirely new technology may dramatically improve capabilities. One could argue that the ARPANET was such an example and was a “breakthrough” or “transformative” technology. But at other times integrating existing technologies in new ways may significantly transform capabilities, perhaps by dramatically reducing costs or reducing the time it takes to perform tasks. For example, a new system that significantly reduces the cost and time involved in launching small satellites into orbit may not involve radically new “breakthrough” technologies but rather combine and upgrade existing technologies to create dramatically better capabilities. This type of improvement is also valuable. Moreover, projects that integrate existing technologies in new ways may carry as much technical risk and offer as much potential benefit as projects to create individual new technologies.
A Challenged-Based R&D Model
DARPA’s goals are not only ambitious; they are also focused on specific challenges and opportunities rather than on general discovery or invention. One of this book’s editors (William B. Bonvillian) has noted two important aspects of this model: it is “ challenge-based”, and it is a “ connected model” that connects scientific research to these technical challenges. 10
By “ challenge-based”, we mean that DARPA program managers identify specific technical capabilities that they think would be both valuable and achievable. Again, DARPA focuses on trying to reach ambitious technical goals but also it tries to demonstrate those capabilities as quickly as possible. It seeks to accelerate the creation of valuable new technologies.
It also uses a “ connected model” of R&D—a deliberate process of connecting basic science and engineering to specific technical goals and challenges. This makes DARPA significantly different from some other U.S. R&D agencies. The National Science Foundation (NSF), for example, supports intellectually interesting basic research in universities that is often unconnected to any specific technical goals. NSF funds “pure” research. Practical results may eventually come out of that research, but NSF does not set ambitious technical goals and then create programs designed to achieve those goals. This is not a bad thing. NSF’s mission is to advance general knowledge, by drawing upon the talents and curiosity of brilliant researchers. While DARPA draws upon that new knowledge, as well as the skilled researchers that universities train, it nonetheless remains an agency focused on achieving specific technical goals.
DARPA also sometimes funds basic scientific research itself, if that research is connected to important technical goals. The agency’s Defense Sciences Office, for example, funds research in fundamental physics, materials, and mathematics, but mainly for the purpose of helping to advance important capabilities. In this sense, DARPA connects science with technical challenges in ways that it hopes will lead to valuable new technical capabilities.
High-Risk/High-Payoff Projects
DARPA focuses on “ high-risk/high-payoff” projects and has developed a philosophy and set of procedures for managing this type of research.
First, the agency is willing to take big technical risks in order to try to get “change-state” results. DARPA is not interested in incremental improvements in technologies or weapons systems. While these improvements are important, especially to the military, they are the province of other R&D agencies. DARPA’s specific mission is to develop significant new or better technologies; to do so, it focuses on projects that involve high risk and the possibility of failure but that also will create high payoffs, if successful.
Second, however, there is nothing haphazard or nonchalant about the way in which DARPA takes risks. In fact, one could call its approach one of “thoughtful” or “rigorous” risk-taking. New program managers and office directors are encouraged and expected to fund programs that offer the possibility of significant advances. But they must also think rigorously about whether ambitious goals are achievable and what technical approaches are most promising. Agency leaders expect their program managers to consult widely with relevant technical communities, test and retest their ideas, and constantly learn.
This two-part emphasis on both ambitious goals and rigorous thinking is best seen in a set of questions originally written down by George Heilmeier, a noted inventor and DARPA director from 1975 to 1977. These are questions (“The Heilmeier Catechism”) that program managers should ask themselves when designing new programs, and these are the questions that DARPA office directors and the agency director will ask when those program managers propose new initiatives, and when they review these programs: What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon. How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice? What’s new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful? Who cares? If you’re successful, what difference will it make? What are the risks and the payoffs? How much will it cost? How long will it take? What are the midterm and final “exams” to check for success?
Third, in addition to this overall philosophy, the agency has evolved ways that can help optimize results in this high-risk environment. Here, again, the agency’s “portfolio” approach is important. The agency makes thoughtful decisions—which are possible because it recruits world-class experts—in full knowledge that R&D is unpredictable and some programs and projects will fail. Indeed, if none failed, the agency’s culture asserts that it would not be doing its job; it would not be bold enough. Investing in a wide range of programs and in a range of projects and technical approaches within those programs increases the chances that the agency’s investments will lead to some significant successes as well as some failures.
In addition, DARPA expects that programs and R&D projects within those programs often will not go as planned. These are research projects tackling unknowns and thus it is likely that promising R&D ideas will fail, that new opportunities will be discovered, and therefore that R&D plans need to be adjusted. So, DARPA program managers constantly evaluate projects and work with performers to identify obstacles and opportunities and to make adjustments; DARPA contracts allow them to do this. DARPA does not force its program managers or R&D performers to adhere to unrealistic or ineffective plans or milestones. Projects certainly have technical objectives, but it is expected that R&D projects will change as R&D performers learn what works and what does not. Program managers and R&D performers themselves continuously evaluate and adapt.
Thus, at DARPA technical failures are expected, since these are high-risk projects and not all will succeed. DARPA and the overall technical community will learn from these dead ends, and the agency will terminate unsuccessful programs and shift funding to more promising ideas. Because the agency has no laboratories or researchers that it must fund year in and year out, it has the freedom to move away from unsuccessful projects to focus on promising ones. Some DARPA leaders state that the only “true failures” occur when R&D performers are unwilling or unable to be candid about the technical problems they are encountering, and therefore the learning process breaks down. 11
DARPA’s Organization and Management
Several of the articles in this compendium identify organizational and management features that have contributed to DARPA’s success. These include:
While DARPA is a DOD agency, under the Secretary of Defense, it has usually had a great deal of independence in determining its overall programs.
However, this does not mean that DARPA does not respond to the national security priorities and strategic directions set by the Secretary of Defense and the President. Recall that ARPA was initially focused on a set of three Presidential issues—areas of national security priority that were identified as being given insufficient focus by the military services. Importantly, these were broad overall research thrusts and ARPA was given wide latitude on how to conduct the research. Generally, this has been the case ever since. This is crucial to DARPA’s focus on change-state, revolutionary capabilities: unless a DARPA-type organization is truly independent, then that organization will feel pressure to work on short-term, incremental projects rather than long-term, potentially breakthrough technologies. A related point is that this type of organization can only maintain its independence and budget if it has support and protection from high-level officials.
A Flat, Non-Hierarchical Organization, with Empowered Program Managers
Hiring technically-accomplished program managers and letting them propose and then run R&D programs is a central feature of the DARPA model. 12 Program managers have the authority and responsibility to prepare all the details of a new proposed program: its scope, its rationale (why should we fund it?), the science and engineering behind it, the specific technical objectives, the metrics for measuring technical progress, and the proposed budget and schedule.
Program managers need to be recruited and supervised. DARPA is able to do so using only two layers of management: office directors and their deputies and then the agency director and deputy director. Since these managers are themselves technically very well trained, they can make informed decisions quickly and competently—including which experts to hire as program managers, when to approve or not approve a proposed R&D program, and how to ensure that program managers operate their programs in a technically effective way.
A unique aspect of DARPA’s management is that it brings in its key assets—the program managers—on a temporary, short-term basis, usually for three to five years each. Thus, there is roughly a 25 percent turnover every year. Hiring new program managers allows for new ideas and capabilities. But hiring talented program managers can be a challenge, given that private-sector salaries are higher, that the DARPA job only lasts three to five years, and that program managers must move to the Washington, DC, area. However, DARPA also offers exciting opportunities to create new technology, so many people are interested in the possibility of working at the agency. The agency has been able to attract highly capable people who want to work on important and exciting ideas.
Outside Performers and Temporary Project Teams
Research and development are performed entirely by outside performers. DARPA has no internal research laboratory that it must maintain and fund every year and the agency is free to hire whomever it thinks are the best people for specific projects. This emphasizes several key points about the DARPA model: it relies on technically-capable program managers, R&D teams include world-class experts, and the projects DARPA funds are limited in time and focused on specific scientific and technical objectives.
Multi-Generational Technology Investments
If a particular DARPA program is successful, then the agency may fund additional “generations” of three- to five-year programs in this technical area. 13 By working on important technical ideas over longer periods of time, DARPA can create enduring new technologies (technology “motifs”) that truly change the technology landscape over time. Each generation of R&D may have different specific objectives and metrics but can be based on a common technical area. Usually each generation learns from prior experience. This may even include supporting a radically different approach to those tried previously, especially if the objective is seen as an enduring national security challenge.
This point about multi-generational investments is important and not always well understood. The fact that DARPA programs typically run from three to five years suggests that the agency funds relatively short-term engineering experiments. It is true that the agency funds many different technical ideas for limited periods of time, but when agency leaders find a new technology that they think offers significant new capabilities for the Defense Department and the country as a whole, they will make sustained investments over many years.
This is usually with a new program manager focused on achieving even more ambitious outcomes, or an entirely new approach, perhaps integrating prior results into a promising new technical idea and creating working prototypes. Technology examples include computing and networking investments, which led to the Internet, iterative advances in artificial intelligence, new concepts for quantum computing and spintronics. On military systems DARPA sponsored many years of investments in stealth, precision-guided munitions, and unmanned aerial vehicles.
Investments in Complementary Strategic Technologies
DARPA sometimes will fund work in additional technical areas relating to major new technology. These related (“complementary”) areas are important for the overall success of the new technology, and developing them also builds political support for commercialization and implementation by showing Defense Department leaders and others that the entire system around that new technology will work. For example, DARPA not only invested in early computer routers and the software to run them (the ARPANET) but also in applications of computer networking (file transfers, e-mail, etc.) and later in new computer communications protocols (TCP/IP) that would allow different computer networks to talk to each other. In short, DARPA and its R&D performers created and demonstrated a complete system.
Flexible Hiring and Contracting Authority
The work of DARPA managers and their administrative staff is helped by special laws that apply to DARPA hiring and contracting. For example, DARPA has legal authority to hire program managers very quickly. In the case of program managers from universities or other government agencies, DARPA may use what is called “ Intergovernmental Personnel Agreements” (IPAs). Under an IPA, the individual stays an employee of his or her university or laboratory, but he or she is temporarily assigned to DARPA and becomes a temporary government employee under a contract with DARPA. The National Science Foundation and other government R&D agencies also have this authority. The IPA process allows DARPA to hire quickly and to pay the same salary people earned earlier.
In the case of people from industry, another provision of law (Section 1101 of the Strom Thurmond National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1999) allows DARPA to hire experts quickly, although people from industry must leave their companies while they are at DARPA. Congress provided these laws about hiring in part because DARPA program managers are temporary, not permanent federal employees.
All program managers and all senior DARPA managers must follow rules to prevent conflicts of interest—that is, to prevent them from making decisions about whether to award contracts to their current or former employers or to companies in which they own stock. But DARPA has a clear process in which other government employees can make these contract decisions, if the need arises.
In addition to flexible hiring authority, DARPA has legal permission to use a wide range of flexible contracting procedures, including “ other transactions authority” (OTA). 14 This OTA power releases DARPA from highly restrictive government procurement requirements. DARPA also has “ prize authority”. For example, in the robotics field DARPA has sometimes used its legal authority to organize contests and provide prizes, in order to draw in groups that do not usually work with the government.
Creating New Technical Communities
By funding multi-disciplinary teams that both compete and cooperate with each other, DARPA often stimulated new technical communities and new academic fields. Examples over the years include materials science and engineering, computer science, and now synthetic biology/engineering biology. In fact, one can argue that DARPA actually makes two very important contributions: it not only helps create and demonstrate new technologies but also helps create important new technical communities.
These researchers then can perform additional R&D, teach students, and contribute further ideas to DARPA. In addition, DARPA-funded communities are a primary means for transitioning the newly-developed technologies to the military and to commercial companies
How DARPA Transfers Its Technologies
DARPA succeeds in large part because other organizations in government and the corporate world further develop and then commercialize and buy the new technologies. In other words, since DARPA itself does not usually build full prototypes or early operational systems, it must rely on other parts of the U.S. national innovation system to perform those tasks. What features of the DARPA model and the overall national innovation system help technology transfer (what DARPA calls “ technology transition”)? 15
DARPA’s Willingness to Challenge Incumbent Technologies
DARPA is willing to challenge existing technologies and the organizations that produce and use them. Again, the agency sees its job as changing people’s minds about what is possible. So, for example, it showed that a computer network using open standards could replace proprietary networking systems. It created and then, with support from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, pushed for the adoption of stealth, unmanned aerial systems, precision strike, and night vision. It uses conferences, prize competitions, “technology insertion projects” (demonstrations of new technology in actual military systems), and other techniques to demonstrate and publicize new technical capabilities.
A Community of Technology Advocates
As discussed earlier, DARPA and its performers create new technical communities. Besides helping DARPA undertake new research, researchers in these new communities also often become knowledgeable, enthusiastic advocates for new technologies.
Some of these experts work in the government, some in universities, some for large firms, and some start new entrepreneurial companies. They share an overall vision of what can be done, and they often become what Bonvillian and Van Atta call “communities of change-state advocates”—people who are willing and able to change the technology world. This is a very important reason why DARPA has been so influential.
Close Ties to DOD Leaders
The agency’s close ties to Secretaries of Defense and other senior officials not only help DARPA maintain its independence; these ties also mean that these officials become “champions” who want to further develop and then use DARPA-created technologies. Their support is very important for technology transfer. For example, senior DOD officials pushed the U.S. Air Force to adopt both stealth aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles. Bonvillian and Van Atta see DARPA and DOD using an “ island/bridge” model of organization: DARPA is a type of organizational island, with a high degree of autonomy, but it also has a close link (“bridge”) to senior DOD officials, helping it to transfer its new technologies to the wider defense world. 16
Connection to Technically-Sophisticated, Well-Funded Customers
The process of turning a radical new technology into actual products is usually risky, difficult, and expensive. DARPA and the overall Defense Department deal with this difficulty in two ways.
First, DARPA is fortunate that the Defense Department can be both willing and able to turn new prototype technologies into actual products. Its senior leaders may want advanced technologies, and its other laboratories, contractors, and large procurement system can enable the Department to refine and buy these new products. Even so, the “transition” of new technologies from DARPA to the military services is often difficult because DARPA-developed capabilities usually challenge the current way of doing operations. Thus, DARPA spends considerable time and effort on the transition process, recognizing that it is often difficult.
Second, the agency also works directly with private sector companies that are interested in commercializing new DARPA-demonstrated technologies. One example is DARPA’s long work with the semiconductor industry on advanced chip-making technologies which has led to better and less expensive computer chips for both military and civilian customers. Examples includes silicon-on-insulator technology and MMIC signal processing chips. The new commercial frontier of self-driving vehicles is another example of an industry adopting and building upon DARPA-funded research. Many firms and venture capitalists in the commercial world avidly follow DARPA programs.
U.S. intellectual property law helps facilitate this transfer of DARPA-funded technology to the corporate world. Under the Patent and Trademarks Act Amendments of 1980 (popularly known as the “ Bayh-Dole Act”), universities and small companies may keep legal title to inventions developed with federal money. When DARPA projects create new technologies, universities may license inventions to companies and small firms can easily use their inventions to help create new products.
A Good Political Design
In addition to the points made above about the way DARPA is organized and how it operates to succeed it must also have a good “political design”. 17 Senior government officials, members of the national legislature, and the larger technical community must support the agency or at least not fight its operations and budget. DARPA succeeds because its mission (national defense) is important, because it has a reputation for producing valuable and high-quality technology, and because it does not threaten the budgets of other agencies.
The Remainder of this Book
The rest of this book is divided into four parts: Part I, “Perspectives on DARPA”; Part II, “The Roles of DARPA Program Managers”; Part III, “Applying the DARPA Model in Other Situations”; Part IV, “Conclusions”.
Part I, “Perspectives on DARPA”, has seven chapters. Chapter 2 , by Richard Van Atta, is a history of DARPA’s first fifty years. Chapter 3 , by Michael Piore, Phech Colatat and Elisabeth Beck Reynolds, compares DARPA’s culture with more traditional federal R&D agencies, including NSF. Chapter 4 , by William B. Bonvillian, discusses the “ DARPA Model”, and particularly how it follows an approach developed during World War II that connects cutting-edge science with the solution of specific technical challenges. Chapter 5 , by Tamara Carleton, discusses the central role of technical vision in DARPA’s operations and results. Chapter 6 , by Glenn R. Fong, is a history of how DARPA-funded inventions placed a central role in the development of personal computers and their software. Chapter 7 , by Erica R. H. Fuchs, discusses DARPA’s governance approach as embodying an imbedded network. Chapter 8 , by David W. Cheney and Richard Van Atta, explores the processes through which DARPA creates new programs, looking at the origins of several past DARPA programs. Chapter 9 , by Patrick Windham, addresses a set of questions that have been raised concerning the DARPA model.
Part II, “The Roles of DARPA Program Managers”, contains Chapters 10 and 11 , written by Jinendra Ranka and Larry Jackel, two former DARPA program managers.
Part III, “Applying the DARPA Model in Other Situations”, contains two chapters. Chapter 12 , by William B. Bonvillian, examines the lessons that DARPA’s model of creating innovation provides for other, older, “ legacy sector” parts of the Department of Defense. Chapter 13 , by William B. Bonvillian and Richard Van Atta, discusses how leaders might effectively apply the DARPA model to the (then) relatively new Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy (ARPA -E) as well as organizational lessons from ARPA -E itself. Chapter 14 , by William B. Bonvillian, discusses IARPA, another DARPA clone. Chapter 15 , by Robert Cook-Deegan, explores the possible application of the DARPA model to the National Institutes of Health ( NIH).
Part IV, “Conclusions”, consists of Chapter 16 , by Richard Van Atta, Patrick Windham and William B. Bonvillian, summarizing key lessons from DARPA’s experience on how to structure an organization to successfully create new, innovative technologies.
These various chapters overlap to some degree. However, the editors of this book hope that together they will provide readers with a comprehensive set of insights on how this remarkable government agency works and why it has succeeded as well as it has.
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1 Van Atta, R. (2008). “Fifty Years of Innovation and Discovery”, in DARPA , 50 Years of Bridging the Gap , ed. C. Oldham, A. E. Lopez, R. Carpenter, I. Kalhikina, and M. J. Tully. Arlington, VA: DARPA. 20–29, at 25, ( Chapter 2 in this volume ).

2 Congress, through an amendment by Senator Mike Mansfield, renamed “ARPA” as “DARPA” in 1972, adding the word “Defense.” Congress, through Senator Jeff Bingaman, renamed it “ARPA” again in February 1993, because of its “ dual-use” role in creating technologies with commercial as well as military applications. The name reverted to “DARPA” in March 1996.

3 Weinberger, S. (2017). The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, The Pentagon Agency That Changed the World . New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 81. Weinberger goes into considerable detail on Project AGILE and the role of Deputy Director Godel in shaping DARPA’s involvement in tactical technologies related to not only U.S. combat in Southeast Asia, but also a much broader focus on counterinsurgency-related activities in other parts of the world. While there were some modestly successful early technology developments under AGILE, such as tactical remotely-piloted vehicles, much of this program was egregiously unsuccessful with harmful repercussions, including Agent Orange and other defoliation efforts, poorly conceived and methodologically suspect social science forays, and the “strategic hamlets” concept of population relocation. Perhaps most damning was the inclination of those running and overseeing these programs, including DARPA’s director, to delude themselves that they were effective. Director Charles Herzfeld subsequently stated, “ AGILE was an abysmal failure, a glorious failure” (Weinberger. (2017). The Imagineers of War , 185).

4 Barber Associates, R. (1975 ). The Advanced Research Projects Agency, 1958–1974 . Report Prepared for the Advanced Projects Research Agency, vii-3. Springfield, VA: Defense Technical Information Center.

5 The DDR&E was created in 1958 as the third ranking position in the Pentagon, below only the Secretary and Deputy Secretary of Defense, as essentially the Chief Technology Officer. DARPA reported to the DDR&E. Subsequently this position became the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (USD(AT&L)).

6 This transformation is detailed in Waldrop, M. M. (2001). The Dream Machine: J. C. R. Licklider and the Revolution that Made Computing Personal . New York, NY: Viking Press.

7 DARPA. (2005). DARPA—Bridging the Gap, Powered by Ideas , 1. Arlington, VA: Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, .

8 There was one significant exception. DARPA did develop operational technology for seismic detection of Soviet underground nuclear tests. DARPA was only able to transition this seismic detection network to the Air Force after running it for approximately twenty years.

9 There have been times, usually to meet a wartime need, when DARPA has focused on short term technologies, notably under project AGILE during the Vietnam conflict, but these have become exceptions. Under such circumstances, it is important to ask whether DARPA is the best place to pursue such near-term technology developments.

10 Bonvillian, W. B. (2009). “The Connected Science Model for Innovation—The DARPA Model”, in 21st Century Innovation Systems for the U.S. and Japan , ed. S. Nagaoka, M. Kondo, K. Flamm, and C. Wessner. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. 206–37, , ( Chapter 4 in this volume ).

11 We are grateful to Dr. Jane Alexander, a former deputy director of DARPA, for making this point.

12 Bonvillian, W. B., and Van Atta, R. (2011). “ARPA-E and DARPA: Applying the DARPA Model to Energy Innovation”, The Journal of Technology Transfer 36: 469–513 ( Chapter 13 in this volume ); and Bonvillian, W. B., and Van Atta, R. (2012). ARPA-E and DARPA: Applying the DARPA Model to Energy Innovation . Presentation at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, Washington, DC, February,

13 For a fuller discussion of DARPA technology thrust areas, see Van Atta, R., Deitchman, S., and Reed, S. (1991). DARPA Technical Accomplishments. Volume III. Alexandria, VA: Institute for Defense Analyses (chapter 4),

14 DOD offers this explanation: “For DOD, ‘other transactions’ is a term commonly used to refer to the 10 U.S.C. 2371 [Title 10, United States Code, section 2371] authority to enter into transactions other than contracts, grants or cooperative agreements. OTA provides tremendous flexibility since instruments for prototype projects, awarded pursuant to this authority, generally are not subject to federal laws and regulations limited in applicability to procurement contracts.” This description is from Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics. (2001). “Other Transactions” (OT) Guide for Prototype Projects , .

15 This section draws largely from Bonvillian and Van Atta. (2011). “ARPA-E and DARPA”.

16 Bonvillian and Van Atta. (2011). “ARPA-E and DARPA”, 486.

17 Bonvillian, W. B. (2013). Evolution of U.S. Government Innovation Organization: From the Pipeline Model, to the Connected Model, to the Problem of ‘Political Design . Presentation at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) GRIPS Innovation, Science, and Technology Seminar, Tokyo, April.
2. Fifty Years of Innovation and Discovery 1
Richard Van Atta

© Richard Van Atta, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA)—which came to be known as DARPA in 1972 when its name changed to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—emerged in 1958 as part of a broad reaction to a singular event: the launching by the Soviet Union of the Sputnik satellite on 4 October 1957. While in retrospect, Sputnik itself does not seem to be a particularly significant technological achievement, it had massive psychological and political impact. As recounted in Roger D. Launius’ “ Sputnik and the Origins of the Space Age”, found on the website for NASA’s Office of History, “The only appropriate characterization that begins to capture the mood on 5 October involves the use of the word hysteria”. 2 Launius wrote in the same document that then Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, recollected, “Now, somehow, in some new way, the sky seemed almost alien. I also remember the profound shock of realizing that it might be possible for another nation to achieve technological superiority over this great country of ours.”
For the United States to find itself behind the Soviet Union in entering space signified that something was seriously wrong not only with America’s space program but with its organization and management of advanced science and technology for national security. Sputnik evidenced that something was substantially wrong with U.S. defense science and technology and that a fundamental change was needed. Out of this ferment—in fact one of the first actions to emerge from it—was a bold new concept for organizing defense advanced research: the Advanced Research Projects Agency. This agency—renamed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 1972—refocused and rejuvenated America’s defense technological capabilities. Moreover, DARPA has also instigated technological innovations that have fundamentally reshaped much of the technological landscape not only in defense capabilities but much more broadly with breakthrough advances in information technologies, sensors, and materials that have pervasive economic and societal benefits.
The “ DARPA Model”
DARPA’s primary mission is to foster advanced technologies and systems that create “revolutionary” advantages for the U.S. military. Consistent with this mission, DARPA is independent from the military Services and pursues higher-risk research and development ( R&D) projects with the aim of achieving higher-payoff results than those obtained from more incremental R&D. Thus, DARPA program managers are encouraged to challenge existing approaches and to seek results rather than just explore ideas. Hence, in addition to supporting technology and component development, DARPA has on funded the integration of large-scale “systems of systems” in order to demonstrate what we call today “disruptive capabilities”.
Underlying this “ high-risk—high-payoff” motif of DARPA is a set of operational and organizational characteristics including: relatively small size; a lean, non-bureaucratic structure; a focus on potentially change-state technologies; a highly flexible and adaptive research program. We will return to these characteristics later. What is important to understand at the outset is that in contrast to the then existing Defense research environment, ARPA was designed to be manifestly different. It did not have labs. It did not focus on existing military requirements. It was separate from any other operational or organizational elements. It was explicitly chartered to be different, so it could do fundamentally different things than had been done by the Military Service R&D organizations.
The reason for this dramatic departure, as elaborated below, was that President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his key advisors had determined—as evidenced by the Sputnik debacle—that the existing R&D system had failed to respond to the realities of the emerging national security threat embodied by the Soviet Union.
DARPA’s Origins: Strategic Challenges ~1958
Sputnik itself demonstrated that the USSR not only had ambitions in space, but also had developed the wherewithal to launch missiles with nuclear capabilities to strike the continental United States. Therefore, at the outset ARPA was focused initially on three key areas as Presidential Issues: space, missile defense and nuclear test detection.
The first issue, achieving a space presence, was a large element of the initial ARPA, but was spun off to become NASA, based on President Eisenhower’s determination that space research should not be directly under the Department of Defense (DOD). According to Herbert York’s book, Making Weapons, Talking Peace: A Physicist’s Odyssey from Hiroshima to Geneva , it was well understood in ARPA that its role in space programs was temporary and that the creation of NASA was already in the works both in the White House and in Congress. 3
To address ballistic missile defense (BMD), ARPA established the DEFENDER program, which lasted until 1967, performing advanced research relating to BMD and offensive ballistic missile penetration. This program was ARPA’s largest over the decade and included pioneering research into large ground-based phased array radar, Over the Horizon (OTH) high-frequency radar, high-energy lasers, and a very high acceleration anti-ballistic missile interceptor, as well as extensive research into atmospheric phenomenology, measurement and imaging, and missile penetration aids.
ARPA’s nuclear test detection program, VELA, focused on sensing technologies and their implementation to detect Soviet weapons testing. VELA Hotel satellites successfully developed sensing technology and global background data to detect nuclear explosions taking place in space and the atmosphere, providing monitoring capability supporting the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963. VELA also included seismic detection of under-ground explosions and ground-based methods to detect nuclear explosions in the atmosphere and in space.
By 1960, a counter-insurgency project ( AGILE) was started as the Vietnam War heated up. This included diverse tactical systems ranging from field-testing experiments leading to the M-16 rifle to foliage-penetrating radar capable of automatically detecting intruders, an acoustically stealthy aircraft for night surveillance, and initial work in night vision.
In 1962 ARPA initiated the Office of Information Processing Techniques and Behavioral Sciences to address information processing “techniques” with a focus on possible relevance to command and control. As is elaborated below, under the expansive vision of its first director, J. C. R. Licklider, this office went on to effect a fundamental revolution in computer technologies, of which the now-famous ARPANET was only one element.
What is DARPA?
DARPA was first established as a research and development organization immediately under the Secretary of Defense with the mission to assure that the U.S. maintains a lead in applying state-of-the-art technology for military capabilities and prevent technological surprise from her adversaries.
ARPA was created to fill a unique role, a role which by definition and in its inception put it into contention and competition with the existing Defense R&D establishment. As the Advanced Research Projects Agency, ARPA was differentiated from other organizations by an explicit emphasis on “advanced” research, generally implying a degree of risk greater than more usual research endeavors. As former ARPA Director Dr. Eberhardt Rechtin emphasized, research, as opposed to development, implies unknowns, which in turn imply the possibility of failure, in the sense that the advanced concept or idea that is being researched may not be achievable. Were the concept achievable with little or no risk of failure, the project would not be a research effort, but a development effort.
It is clear from DARPA’s history that within the scope of this mission the emphasis and interpretation of advanced research have varied, particularly in terms of the degree and type of risk and how far to go toward demonstration of application. Risk has several dimensions: (1) lack of knowledge regarding the phenomena or concept itself; (2) lack of knowledge about the applications that might result if the phenomena or concept were understood; (3) inability to gauge the cost of arriving at answers regarding either of these; and (4) difficulty of determining broader operational and cost impacts of adopting the concept. As answers about (1) become clearer through basic research, ideas regarding applications begin to proliferate, as do questions of whether and how to explore their prospects. DARPA is at the forefront of this question and has the difficult job of determining whether enough is known to move toward an application and, if so, how to do so. At times this can be very controversial, as researchers may feel they do not know enough to guarantee success and are concerned that “premature” efforts may in fact create doubts about the utility and feasibility of the area of research, resulting in less funding and (from their perspective) less progress. DARPA, however, has a different imperative than the researcher to strive to see what can be done with the concepts or knowledge, even if it risks exposing what is not known and what its flaws are. This tension is endemic in DARPA’s mission and at times has put it at odds with the very research communities that it sponsors.
During times of changing circumstances, the agency has had to reassess its project mix and emphasis due to determinations both internally and within the Office of the Secretary of Defense regarding the appropriate level of risk and the need to demonstrate application potential. In a sense, these somewhat contradictory imperatives serve as the extreme points on a pendulum’s swing. As DARPA is pulled toward one of the extremes, often by forces beyond itself, including Congressional pressures, there are countervailing pressures stressing DARPA’s unique characteristics to do militarily relevant advanced research .
At the other end of the spectrum, as projects demonstrate application potential, DARPA runs into another set of tensions, not with the researcher, but with the potential recipient of the research product. Given that the ideas pursued are innovative, perhaps revolutionary, they imply unknowns to the user in terms of how they will be implemented and how this implementation will affect the implementer’s overall operations. To this end, the potential military users seek to reduce their uncertainty in what is a highly risk-intolerant environment by encouraging DARPA, or some other development agency, to carry forward the concept until these risks are minimized, or by simply ignoring, delaying or stretching out its pursuit. While achieving transition can be increased by additional risk reducing research, this also entails substantial additional cost and raises the issue of mission boundaries. Perhaps one of the most critical and difficult aspects of the DARPA Director’s job is to decide that DARPA has concluded its part of a particular technology effort and while there is surely more work to be done, it is not DARPA’s job to do it.
There have been several occasions in DARPA’s history when its management has determined that it has done enough in an area to demonstrate the potential of a specific concept—such as Unmanned Air Vehicles ( UAVs)—and that it is thus time for others to fund development of its application and acquisition. These decisions have at times meant that a potential concept becomes a victim of the “valley of death”, with the application either failing to be realized, or, as in the case of UAVs, taking over a decade with special high-level attention from the Office of the Secretary of Defense ( OSD) to come to fruition
Over the years DARPA has made considerable effort to develop mechanisms to engage potential “customers” in an emerging concept. Working with prospective developers and users as the ideas mature is a key aspect of DARPA project management. However, DARPA has to remain aware that over-extending its involvement in a particular technology development has costs as well—specifically, it means that resources and capabilities are not available to explore other potentially revolutionary ideas. Indeed, this lesson goes back to the very beginnings of DARPA, when it transferred the incipient space program to the newly created NASA. Herbert York, ARPA’s first Chief Scientist recalls, that the civilian space program being moved to NASA (and remainder back to the Services) was “what left room for all the other things that ARPA has subsequently done… including the Internet. If ARPA had been left completely tied up with all these space programs, all kinds of other good things would never have happened”. 4
DARPA’s Key Characteristics
It was recognized from the outset that DARPA’s unique mission required an organization with unique characteristics. Among the most salient of these are: It is independent from Service R&D organizations
DARPA neither supports a Service directly nor does it seek to implement solutions to identified Service requirements. Its purpose is to focus on capabilities that have not been identified in Service R&D and on meeting defense needs that are not defined explicitly as Service requirements. This does not mean that DARPA does not work with the Services, but it does mean that it does not work the requirements that drive Service R&D. It is a lean, agile organization with risk-taking culture
DARPA’s charter to focus on “ high-risk/high-payoff” research requires that it be tolerant of failure and open to learning . It has had to learn to manage risk, not avoid it. Because of its charter, it has adopted organizational, management and personnel policies that encourage individual responsibility and initiative, and a high degree of flexibility in program definition. This is one reason that DARPA does not maintain any of its own labs.
A primary aspect of DARPA’s lean structure is that it centers on and facilitates the initiative of its program managers. The DARPA program manager is the technical champion who conceives and owns the program. As the program manager is the guiding intelligence behind the program, the most important decisions of DARPA’s few Office Directors are the selection of and support of risk-taking, idea-driven program managers dedicated to making the technology work. 5 It is idea-driven and outcome-oriented
The coin of the realm at DARPA is promising ideas. The Project Manager succeeds by convincing others—the Office Director and the DARPA Director—that he or she has identified a high potential new concept. The gating notion isn’t that the idea is well-proven, but that it has high prospects of making a difference. The DARPA program manager will seek out and fund researchers within U.S. defense contractors, private companies, and universities to bring the incipient concept into fruition. Thus, the research is outcome-driven to achieve results toward identified goals, not to pursue science per se. The goals may vary from demonstrating that an idea is technically feasible to providing proof-of-concept for an operational capability. To achieve these results the program manager needs to be open to competing approaches, and be adroit and tough-minded in selecting among these.
Which DARPA?
While the concept of DARPA as a “high-risk—high pay-off” organization has been maintained, it also has been an intrinsically malleable and adaptive organization. Indeed, DARPA has morphed several times.
DARPA has “re-grouped” iteratively—often after its greatest “successes”. The first such occasion was soon after its establishment with the spinning off of its space programs into NASA. This resulted in about half of the then ARPA personnel either leaving to form the new space agency, or returning to a military service organization to pursue military-specific space programs. A few years later then DDR&E (Director of Defense Research and Engineering) John S. Foster required ARPA to transition its second largest inaugural program—the DEFENDER missile defense program—to the Army, much to the consternation of some key managers within ARPA. Also, early in its history ARPA was tasked to conduct a program of applied research in support of the military effort in Vietnam.
More important than the variety of the programs is that they demonstrate the speed with which DARPA took on a new initiative and also how rapidly its programs can move—sometimes more rapidly than its supporters within DARPA may desire. However, particular programs or technologies have not become the identifier of what DARPA is. Rather, DARPA’s identity is defined by its ability to rapidly take on and assess new ideas and concepts directed at daunting military challenges or overarching application prospects. While the dwell time on new ideas may vary and DARPA may return to the concept iteratively over its history—most notably with its return to missile defense in the 1970s leading to the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) in the 1980s—its hallmark is to explore and create new opportunities, not perfect the ideas that it has fostered. A crucial element of what has made DARPA a special, unique institution is its ability to re-invent itself, to adapt, and to avoid becoming wedded to the last problem it tried to solve.
Emphasizing DARPA’s adaptability is not to say that there are not some underlying elements to what DARPA does. While there have been some additional ad hoc activities thrown in over time, DARPA has had significant roles in the following: Turning basic science into emerging technologies Exploring “disruptive” capabilities (military and more generic) Developing technology strategy into a Defense strategy Foster revolution or fundamental transformation in a domain of technology application (e.g., the Internet or standoff precision strike)
Key Elements of DARPA’s Success
There are several key elements in DARPA’s succeeding in its unique role as an instigator of radical innovation. Create surprise; don’t just seek to avoid it
DARPA mission is to investigate new emerging technological capabilities that have prospects to create disruptive capabilities. It is differentiated from other R&D organizations by a charter that explicitly emphasizes “high-risk, high payoff” research. Build communities of “change-state advocates”
DARPA program managers may often themselves foster a specific concept or technological approach that they seek to explore and develop. But almost never are they the main, let alone sole, investigator of the concept/approach. Rather it is DARPA’s motif to instigate cooperation among a group of forward-looking researchers and operational experts. In this sense, DARPA’s success depends on it being a leader and catalyst in developing this community of interest. Define challenges, develop solution concepts, and demonstrate them
One aspect of DARPA’s success has been efforts to define strategic challenges in detail. Since its inaugural Presidential Issues, DARPA has been problem focused, seeking breakthrough, change-state approaches to overcome daunting issues. This has been true in the military realm from the outset. DARPA-sponsored researchers under Project DEFENDER conducted detailed assessments of intercontinental missile phenomena for both defense and offense. For example, in the 1960s and 1970s, DARPA funded studies at the then new Institute for Defense Analyses on missile offense and defense first under the STRAT-X project on ICBM offense-defense followed by then PEN-X study which assessed both U.S. and Soviet capabilities to penetrate missile defense systems. Subsequently, in the late 1970s, DARPA funded studies to understand how the Warsaw Pact was postured against Western Europe in order to determine how technology could provide a means to offset the Warsaw Pact’s numerical and geographic advantages. According to Transformation and Transition: DARPA’s Role in Fostering an Emerging Revolution in Military Affairs , a paper by the Institute for Defense Analyses, this planning led to DARPA research in both stealth and standoff precision strike, which provided the basis for Secretary of Defense Harold Brown’s and Director of Defense Research and Engineering William Perry’s “ offset strategy”. 6
Such detailed conceptual work also facilitated DARPA’s non-military research—explicitly that in information technology. J. C. R. Licklider came to DARPA as head of the Information Processing Techniques Office with a vision on man-computer symbiosis that grew in specificity as he collaborated with others, especially Robert Taylor, to present a perspective of internetted computers providing capabilities for collaboration and data interchange amongst researchers. 7 Some of this work is described in Licklider’s article, “ Man-Computer Symbiosis”, and Licklider and Taylor’s, “The Computer as a Communications Device”.
Tension Between DARPA Roles
DARPA has been a pursuer of new breakthrough technologies independent of defined needs . It also has been a developer of concept prototypes and demonstrations that address needs (but not defined requirements). While complementary, these are substantially different roles requiring different management approaches and different types of researchers. The first type of endeavor requires an exploratory, somewhat unstructured approach seeking out alternatives amongst competing ideas. The latter focuses on taking a specific set of emerging capabilities and combining them into a demonstration of proof-of-concept. Such demonstrations are generally larger in scale and more resource intensive than exploratory research. Moreover, rather than exploratory, they are aimed at assessing the merit of a specific concept. Indeed, demonstration prototype efforts can be “resource sumps”, as they are both uncertain and costly. Therefore, the DARPA Director has needs to attentively oversee these while maintaining and protecting the more exploratory research efforts.
DARPA’s Successes
Over the fifty years since its inception DARPA has had several major accomplishments that distinguish it as an innovative organization.
Third Generation Info Tech—the Creation Interactive Information
The singularly most notable technology accomplishment that DARPA is known for is the development of what is now known as modern computing, as embodied in the personal computer and the Internet. While this achievement had its origins in the remarkable vision of one man, J. C. R. Licklider, its coming to fruition speaks volumes for the nature of DARPA as an organization and the willingness of its management to support and nurture the pursuit of such an extraordinary perspective. 8
The vision that Licklider brought to DARPA was one of a totally revolutionary concept of computers and how they could be used. He foresaw that rather than being fundamentally highly automated calculating ma- chines, computers could be employed as tools in supporting humans in creative processes which he discussed in the article “Man-Computer Symbiosis” in March 1960’s IRE Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics , volume HFE-1. However, to do so would require entirely new, yet non-existent computer capabilities that included interactive computers, internetted computing, virtual reality, and intelligent systems.
Licklider’s extraordinary notion of “ man-computer symbiosis” was a fundamental vision that foresaw using new types of computational capabilities to first achieve augmented human capabilities, and then possibly artificial intelligence. Licklider brought these inchoate notions to DARPA when he was named Director of its Information Processing Techniques Office ( IPTO). He brought a powerful vision of what could be and used this as the basis for sustained investment in the underlying technologies to achieve the vision. This concept became the gestation of a concerted effort that culminated in the ARPANET, as well as a number of technological innovations in the underlying computer graphics, computer processing, and other capabilities that led to DARPA’s fundamental impact on “making computers personal”: a truly change-state vision which had fundamental impact in fostering a transformational concept and the creation of an entire industry.
DARPA’s Role in Creating a Revolution in Military Affairs 9
DARPA has been instrumental in developing a number of technologies, systems and concepts critical to what some have termed the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) that DOD implemented in the 1990s based on R&D conducted by DARPA over the prior fifteen years, according to the Institute for Defense Analyses paper Transformation and Transition: DARPA’s Role in Fostering an Emerging Revolution in Military Affairs . It did so by serving as a virtual DOD corporate laboratory: a central research activity, reporting to the top of the organization, with the flexibility to move rapidly into new areas and explore opportunities that held the potential of “changing the business”. DARPA acted as a catalyst for innovation by articulating thrust areas linked to overall DOD strategic needs, seeding and coordinating external research communities, and funding large-scale demonstrations of disruptive concepts. In doing so, the DARPA programs presented senior DOD leadership with opportunities to develop disruptive capabilities. When these programs received consistent senior leadership support, typically from the highest levels of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, they transitioned into acquisition and deployment. At other times, without this backing from the highest reaches of the department, only the less disruptive, less joint elements moved forward.
An example of one of the most successful DARPA programs is its championing of stealth. A radical and controversial concept, DARPA’s stealth R&D harnessed industry ideas. Low-observable aircraft had been built before, for reconnaissance and intelligence purposes, but not pursued for combat applications. The Air Force had little interest in a slow, not very maneuverable plane that could only fly at night. After considerable engineering work, the Have Blue proof-of-concept system enabled top OSD and Service leadership to proceed with confidence to fund and support a full-scale acquisition program. OSD leadership kept the subsequent F-117A program focused on a limited set of high priority missions that existing aircraft could not perform well. For example, the program focused on overcoming Soviet integrated air defenses, and worked with Congress to protect its budget, with a target completion date within the same administration. The result was a “secret weapon” capability—exactly what DARPA and top DOD leadership had envisioned.
Sustaining the DARPA Vision
DARPA’s higher-risk, longer-term R&D agenda distinguishes it from other sources of defense R&D funding. Perhaps the most important effect of DARPA’s work is to change people’s minds as to what is possible .
DARPA’s fifty-year history reveals a constant mission to create novel, high-payoff capabilities by aggressively pushing the frontiers of knowledge—indeed demanding that the frontiers be pushed back in order to explore the prospects of new capabilities. As an entity DARPA has many of the same features as its research.
DARPA began as a bold experiment aimed at overcoming the usual incremental, tried and true processes of technology development. Like the research it is chartered to develop, DARPA has consistently been purposively “disruptive” and “transformational” over its fifty years.
Sustaining this unique ethos has not always been easy. There have been several efforts over the years to “tone DARPA down;” make its research more compatible and integrated into the rest of DOD R&D; have it focus more heavily on nearer term, more incremental applications—in other words make it behave like a normal R&D organization. There have been efforts to broaden its charter into system prototyping well beyond the proof-of-concept demonstrations it has constructed on several breakthrough systems. However, with strong internal leadership, both within DARPA and in the OSD, as well as support from Congress, DARPA has been able to perform a truly unique role—it has been and continues to be DOD’s “Chief Innovation Agency”, pushing the frontiers of what is possible for the benefit of national security and the nation as a whole.
Launius, R. D. “Sputnik and the Origins of the Space Age”, NASA History ,
Licklider, J. C. R. (1960). “Man-Computer Symbiosis”, IRE Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics 1: 4–11,
Licklider, J. C. R., and Taylor, R. (1968). “The Computer as a Communications Device”, Science and Technology 76: 21–31.
Van Atta, R., Lippitz, M., et al. (2003). Transformation and Transi tion, DARPA’s Role in Fostering a Revolution in Military Affairs. Volume 1. Alexandria, VA: Institute for Defense Analyses, ,
Waldrop, M. M. (2001). The Dream Machine: J. C. R. Licklider and the Revolution that Made Computing Personal . New York, NY: Viking Press.
York, H. (1987). Making Weapons, Talking Peace: A Physicist’s Odyssey from Hiroshima to Geneva . New York, NY: Basic Books.

1 This contribution originally appeared as a chapter entitled “Fifty Years of Innovation and Discovery”, in DARPA, 50 Years of Bridging the Gap , ed. C. Oldham, A. E. Lopez, R. Carpenter, I. Kalhikina, and M. J. Tully. Arlington, VA: DARPA. 20–29, . This book was published in 2008 to commemorate the agency’s fiftieth anniversary.

2 Launius, R. D. “Sputnik and the Origins of the Space Age”, NASA History , .

3 York, H. (1987). Making Weapons, Talking Peace: A Physicist’s Odyssey from Hiroshima to Geneva . New York, NY: Basic Books, 143.

4 York, H. (2007). Interview , 5 January.

5 Currently DARPA has Directors for six Offices: Defense Sciences; Information Processing Technology; Information Exploitation; Microsystems Technology; Strategic Technology; and Tactical Technology.

6 Van Atta, R., Lippitz, M., et al. (2003). Transformation and Transition, DARPA’s Role in Fostering a Revolution in Military Affairs. Volume 1. Alexandria, VA: Institute for Defense Analyses, ,

7 Licklider, J. C. R. (1960). “Man-Computer Symbiosis”, IRE Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics 1: 4–11, ; Licklider, J. C. R., and Taylor, R. (1968). “The Computer as a Communications Device”, Science and Technology 76: 21–31. See Waldrop, M. M. (2001). The Dream Machine: J. C. R. Licklider and the Revolution that Made Computing Personal . New York, NY: Viking Press.

8 Waldrop, M. M. (2001). The Dream Machine: J. C. R. Licklider and the Revolution that Made Computing Personal . New York, NY: Viking Press, provides considerable detail on DARPA’s fundamental role in advancing computer technology.

9 This section draws upon Van Atta, et al. (2003). Transformation and Transition .
3. NSF and DARPA as Models for Research Funding: An Institutional Analysis 1
Michael J. Piore, Phech Colatat, and Elisabeth Beck Reynolds

© Chapter’s authors, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 10.11647/OBP.0184.03
The Federal government expends roughly $33 billion annually on scientific research and development in academic institutions, or 60 percent of total academic R&D funding. The former figure represents roughly one percent of U.S. GDP. These funds are allocated through a number of different government agencies and organizations, each operating in a somewhat different way. This study is designed to identify different organizational models of the way in which these funds are allocated to academic research and make a very preliminary assessment of the impact of these different models on the way in which researchers behave and the products their work produces. This has important implications for national science policy and the emergent field of “the science of science policy”.
The study grew out of a much narrower project focused on the attempt to create an agency within the Department of Energy designed to foster radical innovation in energy technologies. The new agency, Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy ( ARPA-E), was modeled on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an agency in the Department of Defense (DOD) that was credited with having generated a variety of new, discontinuous technologies and was generally contrasted with other agencies in the DOD, but more particularly, the National Science Foundation ( NSF) and the National Institutes of Health ( NIH), which were considered more cautious and conservative, and which fostered more continuous or incremental technological developments.
It rapidly became apparent, however, that the critical characteristics of the DARPA model—if indeed there was such a model—were not obvious. The project was consequently restructured to focus on DARPA as an organization, and, subsequently, on the attempt to identify what was peculiar about DARPA, relative to NSF. Material on NIH and other funding provided by the Defense Department was also collected but it is more limited in scope.
From the very start, the project has been conceived in the context of the broader debate about the effectiveness of government, i.e., public sector, initiatives. DARPA attracted our attention in no small measure because of the reputation of the agency as a great success in a period when government has been generally disparaged and government initiatives, especially in the promotion of particular industries, enterprises or technologies, have been viewed with great skepticism. In recent years, there has been a revival of interest in active government. The NSF and DARPA have garnered new interest as countries—particularly developing countries—look to the United States for models for the promotion of economic growth via what has become the new mantra of economic development: “innovation and entrepreneurship in the knowledge economy”.
DARPA attracted our attention for a third reason too: the central role the program managers play in its organization and operation and the power and discretion which is lodged in the hands of these agents at the base of the organizational pyramid. In this respect, it constitutes a “street-level” bureaucracy, a class of governmental organizations that we have been studying in other contexts and which appear to offer a model for public sector management that is alternative to both the classic Weberian bureaucracy, widely viewed as rule-bound and rigid, on the one hand, and the new public management, which uses the profit maximizing firm in a competitive market as a template to construct a more flexible alternative, on the other hand. 2
This chapter is divided into sections as follows: the first section discusses the methodology and research approach. The second section presents the basic findings. It is divided into three subsections, focusing first on DARPA, then on the National Science Foundation (including some background material on NIH), and finally on the origination and motivation of the faculty researchers whose work these Federal organizations fund. The third section of the chapter then turns to an interpretation of the results. I conclude with a discussion of some of the broader implications of the study and the further research toward which they point.
I. Methodology and Research Approach
Our study is centered on MIT. It is based primarily upon data gathered at MIT itself and from outsiders with whom our contacts at MIT had worked directly or whom they recommended as particularly good informants The MIT focus creates a relatively well-defined universe, but obviously limits the generalizability of the results. We discuss those limits in the body of the text.
The focus was dictated by challenges of access. We talked early on with some of the top officials at DARPA, but the agency would not provide us with the data or the names of personnel that would have been required to draw a random sample of researchers or Agency personnel or even to select our informants in a more systematic way.
The study has both a quantitative and a qualitative dimension. The qualitative dimension is based on interviews with key informants. We sought out MIT faculty members who had previously worked on DARPA projects and were knowledgeable about the agency. All of them had also received funding from other sources as well, and hence were able to compare their experiences across Federal agencies, and to a limited extent, with non-Federal funding sources. Virtually all of them had experience with the NSF. Some had also received funding, or considered applying for funding, directly from one or more of the military services, from NIH, and from private organizations (e.g., companies, foundations, and the like). We tried to interview the DARPA program managers of the projects on which our MIT respondents had worked, but we were limited to program managers who had left the agency. In total, we held formal, but open-ended, interviews with twenty-two MIT faculty members, and twelve current or former program managers and agency officials. Fourteen of these came from DARPA, eight from NSF, and five from NIH.
For the quantitative dimension of the study, we started with a data set of all research projects which received outside funding at MIT in the years 1997–2008. We then linked this data to data on patents, licenses, commercial ventures (startups) and citations in scholarly journals. The bulk of this data was provided directly by various offices at MIT, to whom we are greatly indebted for their cooperation. The citations, however, we collected ourselves with the help of a team of MIT undergraduate research assistants.
We focus here on the qualitative dimension of the study, but report preliminary results of the quantitative dimensions as background in the next section below.
II. Basic Findings
To appreciate the nature of this Agency and its role in the debates surrounding Federal research policy, it is important to understand its history, and the nature of its success, particularly in the period of widespread skepticism and general depreciation and disparagement of government and its ability to create and maintain dynamic, innovative programs.
DARPA was created in 1958 in reaction to the launching of the Soviet space satellite Sputnik, and the universal surprise with which it was greeted by the U.S. military, the country’s scientific establishment and the political class. That surprise was widely attributed to the conservative bias of scientific and engineering research, particularly the National Science Foundation that provided the major component of Federal research support and was the principle vector of research policy. The conservative bias was in turn attributed to the peer review process through which funding was allocated and the research effort more generally evaluated. A second component of military research was financed by the Offices of Research of the various branches of the armed services through grants but also through their own laboratories. The obligation of these offices to support the existing infrastructure was a second conservative force in the existing structure. A new agency was then conceived in large measure in reaction to these other organizations. Thus, DARPA was effectively given carte blanche to develop its research projects on its own, unconstrained by the existing research establishment. The institution that we set out to study was the result. It is partly the result of a mission and ethos defined in opposition to these other agencies and partly of organizational characteristics created to escape the constraints under which they operated. In this study, we use the NSF as a foil against which to define and understand the DARPA model, since for academic research it is by far the most important of the various institutions against which DARPA was conceived.
Evaluation of Success
The organization that has emerged over time is, as we shall see, distinctive and poses a challenge to the principles of organization that guide these other agencies. But it has proven to be very resistant to systematic evaluation. The resistance is in part conceptual—it is hard to know how the agency ought to be evaluated. But it is also institutional: DARPA has refused quite explicitly to help support an effort at evaluation, at least in connection with the present study. It rejected our request for data which would have enabled us to define a list of projects, trace the participants drawn into the agency’s orbit, and assess the impact upon conventional measures of scientific output such as patents and citations in scholarly journals. Their claim is that the agency has to be evaluated in terms of its contribution to the mission of the armed forces, a mission that is notoriously difficult to define.
The most extensive evaluation effort of which we are aware is a three-volume study by Van Atta, et al. 3 3 The study reviews approximately forty projects and develops a narrative account both of DARPA’s contribution to the projects and the contribution of the technology which emerged in the process to the military mission and to civilian uses. A great strength of the study is that it includes most of the projects upon which the agency’s reputation in the general public or the science policy community rests, and in that sense it both reflects and sustains the esteem in which the agency is held. But the projects were selected largely on the basis of the data available to evaluate them in this way, and there is no effort to map them onto the larger universe of projects in which DARPA has been engaged, or might have been engaged in the period. Indeed, in the sense that the study purports to evaluate the agency’s success, the projects studied are selected on the dependent variable. The study does not include projects that were considered and never undertaken, or undertaken but abandoned or, as apparently is frequently the practice, folded into other very different projects. It is, moreover, difficult on the basis of this study to compare DARPA to other funding agencies with a different organizational structure and approach.
On the other hand, it is not clear how one would evaluate an agency of this kind. Conventionally, programs are evaluated in terms of benefits and costs. But in the case of research on new technologies the costs are the opportunity costs of research in domains whose pay-offs, since they were never actually undertaken, are impossible to know and the benefits of these projects accrue not only in military preparedness, which even when it is not classified is ill-defined, and some of the projects—the World Wide Web, for example—have so fundamentally altered the texture of everyday existence and have such widespread commercial ramifications that the benefits seem virtually infinite. The Agency is certainly right: Its mission cannot be reduced to the patents and citations in terms of which research results are conventionally measured in academic studies.
Nonetheless, in order to make any systematic comparison, it would be helpful to have some of these conventional measures of success. And for this study, we have constructed such measures starting from data provided by our own institution: MIT maintains a roster of grants and contracts obtained by its faculty and researcher staff. We have linked that individual contract data to several outcomes which are conventionally used as indicators of success. The granting agencies include DARPA, NSF, and NIH as well as the various military research offices, and a number of nongovernmental funding sources (private companies, foundations).
The outcomes which we looked at are threefold: patents, citations, and technology licenses. In addition, we linked the technological licenses to data on new business ventures. The results of this project will be reported in a separate paper. Preliminary findings with respect to patents, technology licenses and new business ventures, are contained in Tables 3-1 and 3-2. As can be seen there, DARPA performs better than any of the other agencies on all of these measures, notwithstanding the fact that the agency explicitly rejects them as measures of its performance.
Table 3-1 Patents supported by sponsored research at MIT, 1997–2008. (Table prepared by the authors)
# patents
# awards
# awards leading to patents
funding ($ mil)
Funding per patent
P (award has patent)
# patents per award (award has patent)
Air Force
MIT — Internal
Table 3-2 Startups supported by sponsored research at MIT, 1997–2008. (Table prepared by the authors)
Number of associated startups (awards)
Total awards
Total funding ($ mil)
P (award supported startup)
Funding per startups
20 (21)
20 (25)
14 (23)
6 (9)
6 (6)
5 (6)
Air Force
3 (4)
Finally, our own work has been particularly influenced by the research of our colleague Erica R. H. Fuchs, who originally called our attention to the significance of DARPA as a possible model of government organization. Fuchs focuses specifically on the role of DARPA in one particular technology, the technology of computing, and places emphasis on the role of the program manager in creating and maintaining networks of researchers or research communities. We follow Fuchs in this last respect, but the broader range of projects which we examine (albeit much more superficially) and the contrast with the NSF complicates this picture. 4 4
Qualitative Findings
Our findings are best understood against the backdrop of a standard peer-review model, which our respondents seemed to carry in the backs of their heads. Central to this model is an academic or scholarly discipline. The financing agency issues a call for proposals from such a discipline. Researchers from that discipline are invited to submit proposals. A panel from within the discipline is then recruited to review these submissions. The panel ranks the proposal, and the agency awards its funds in order of rank, progressing from the highest ranked proposals down the list until the funds are exhausted. The funds are typically awarded in the form of a grant, generally with reporting requirements but with minimal reviews of the research results and no effort to ensure adherence to the original proposal. The model is actually very close to the way in which research funding is organized at the NSF and NIH, albeit, as we shall see, with important qualifications. But the DARPA model is very different. Which of the differences is important for the research outcomes is, of course, an open question, and given the number of dimensions along which practice departs from the standard model, not an easy question to answer.
The DARPA Model
The central figure in the DARPA model is the program manager (PM). The PMs typically comes into the agency with a very specific technological idea which they want to develop. They then spend some period of time—often a year or more—researching that technology and the domain (or domains) in which it lies through their own reading, visiting and talking to key figures who are thought to have something to contribute to the technology or to its development, and colloquia, conferences, small group meetings and other encounters, which he or she typically organizes, in which the technology is discussed and various approaches to its development are debated. After this initial exploratory period, the PM works up a plan for development of the technology and writes and issues RFP’s soliciting proposals for the various components of that plan. At DARPA, these are known as Broad Agency Announcements ( BAA). The proposals are sent out for review to experts whom the PM selects, within the government (particularly the military) and outside. But the ultimate decision as to which proposals to fund rests with the PM alone. Proposals that are accepted then serve as the fulcrum for a research contract which is negotiated with would-be contractors. Contracts typically include specific performance requirements. Contractors are required to submit frequent progress reports and progress is continually monitored through these reports and through site visits. Contracts are subject to revision or cancellation in the light of research experience. In addition to the review process, the organization holds regular seminars and conferences, comparable to those out of which the project initially emerged: contractors (who at DARPA are called performers) are required to attend these meetings, where they are expected to report their own progress and to listen and comment on the reports of others.
Given the central role of the PMs, the way the organization operates depends a lot on the way in which the PMs are recruited and managed. Hence key to the organizational model is the fact that the PMs come from the research community outside the organization, have relatively short tenure in the agency itself (an average of four to five years), and then leave the organization to pursue their careers elsewhere. We have not been able to follow these careers systematically, but it is significant that no obvious pattern emerged in the interviews. Most of the PMs whom we interviewed came from an academic or military background, and afterwards returned to their home institutions, often as a research administrator, but sometimes as rank-and-file professors and researchers, or, alternatively, joined the supporting consulting firms which surround DARPA (to which we will return shortly). Significantly, all of the PMs to whom we talked thought of their DARPA experience as a high point in their careers, one of the most exciting and stimulating periods in their professional lives (this point is stressed particularly by Fuchs).
The Agency operates outside of the civil service recruitment, hiring regulations and salary structure; and although it seems unable to pay exactly what the PMs would earn in the private sector, it is able to negotiate pay scales and contract terms significantly better than those that other government agencies can offer.
Emphasis was placed in virtually all of our interviews upon the fact that the PMs come to the agency with their own project, an idea which they essentially originate and to which they have a personal commitment (respondents talked of that commitment in fact as if it were an obsession—although that was not the term they actually used). In turn, it is obvious that the environment in which the agency operates and its structure determine who brings proposals to the agency and which of those proposals, i.e., which potential PMs, are actually recruited and hired.
DARPA is a flat organization, a hierarchy with three levels: a director, a series of office managers, and the program managers. The director has an associate director who works with him or her but not as a separate level in the hierarchy. The director sets the broad outlines of the research agenda. The research itself is grouped into program areas, largely on the basis of technology and mission, and the office managers flesh out the agenda in their own areas. The PMs coming to the agency with their own ideas present them to the director and/or the office managers. DARPA cultivates a reputation for being open to new, radical ideas originating outside the organization (indeed, listening to people talk, one is led to believe that the ideas always originate from outside the organization) whether or not they fit the defined program. But the office managers and the director play an active role in recruiting ideas that fit into the program and in screening proposals to ensure that the program has some coherence and direction.
While the program itself originates with the director and is fleshed out by the office managers and the PMs whom they hire, it is conceived in consultation with the military services, with Congress and with the Administration. And it is clear in discussions with the agency that careful attention is paid to cultivating support within the political and administrative environment in which it operates. Particular emphasis is placed in virtually all discussions with people about the program upon the military mission of the agency and the way in which that operates to shape the programs.
Another significant factor shaping the programs is the agency’s mission in supporting radical, discontinuous technological change. That mission, as we have already mentioned, is rooted in DARPA’s origins in 1958 as a response to the Russian launching of Sputnik and the way in which Sputnik caught the U.S. military and scientific establishments by surprise.
These two factors—the military mission, and the focus on discontinuous technological development—surface repeatedly in interviews. The Agency is always looking at whether, on the one hand, the research would be undertaken elsewhere in the government or the society, or, on the other hand, whether there is a constituency—already existing or one which could be cultivated—in the military services which would adopt the new technologies and actually deploy them. To the outside observer, the role of the military mission in the operation of the agency—and particularly in the ability of the organizational model to operate in other contexts—is difficult to understand. This is because the technologies under development are often so distant from actual military application that it is hard to imagine a technology for which no military application could be found, and much of what the agency does seems to have no obvious constituency within the military establishment. Nonetheless, reference to the critical role played by the military missions in the success of DARPA was stressed so repeatedly and by so many different informants, especially in discussions of transferring the DARPA model to the Department of Energy in the form of ARPA-E, that one had to believe it is indeed central to the organizational model.
In sum, the characteristics which distinguish DARPA as a funding organization are: 5 The discretion and authority lodged in the PMs; Awards in the form of contracts with specific deliverables and specified performance measures periodically monitored for specific performance. Typically, performance measures specified in contracts are set unrealistically high—targets which stimulate and focus debate about the characteristics of the technology; PMs recruited and compensated outside of the regular civil service regulations; Flat organization consisting of only three levels—PMs, the office managers, and the Director with an assistant director; The tenure of the direct employees of the organization is very short—three to five years for the PMs, even less for many of Director (with the major exception of Tony Tether, who held the position for the full eight years of the Bush Administration 2001–2009).
In addition, two characteristics, which have received little attention in the literature and which we have not discussed so far, stand out: The very extensive use of support personnel hired from outside subcontractors, typically consulting firms, not independent contractors. These consulting firms—but often the particular personnel assigned by the firm to work with DARPA as well—have a long-term relationship with the agency. The tasks which they assume and the roles they play range from clerical and administrative support to high level professional functions. The latter include scientific and engineering research, but also key administrative, training and supervisory tasks. Contractors are used, for example, to “orient” (and in effect to train) new PMs and also to advise them in the development and execution of their programs throughout their careers in the agency. Given the short tenure of DARPA’s own personnel, the contractors provide the organizational continuity. And many of the subcontractors who work with DARPA have a long history with the agency, some having actually served as PMs or as performers.
This role of the outside contractors, and particularly the consulting firms, is a complete reversal of the usual relationship between temporary and permanent employees and, from the point of view of organizational studies, is probably the most interesting aspect of DARPA as an institution. Temporary employees typically have short tenure with the organization and are used to smooth out the variation in personnel requirements, a buffer against flux and uncertainty. The role of these outsiders suggests that a great deal of the much-vaunted flexibility (or malleability) of the organization, and the adaptability which it is supposed to confer on the agency’s program relative to other federal research agencies such as the National Laboratories or NSF, is illusory.
Parallel to the use of consultants, but somewhat different, is the way the agency draws on outsiders to audit and police its contracts with researchers. The outsiders in this case, however, are experienced government employees who are certified to perform this function. The Agency looks for the most qualified auditors within the military services, people who are able to use government contracting regulations in a creative way to accommodate the needs of the performers the PMs want to recruit—although the specific examples which were cited in the interviews related to the requirements of private industry, not academics. The academics, however, reported that the auditors were surprisingly knowledgeable about the technical dimensions of the projects and helpful as the researchers tried to provide explanations for why they were unable to meet contract requirements—explanations that could then be used by the PM in defending his or her program within the agency. The interaction which occurs in the process of contract administration should be understood as part of a final characteristic of the DARPA organizational model: the continual review and discussion which surrounds a program from its very inception until it is completed or phased out. That discussion takes place through a variety of vehicles, including small group meetings; larger and more formal seminars and conferences; formal meetings when seeking funding for new program proposals and on continuing or expanded funding for ongoing programs in meetings between the PMs, the office managers and the DARPA director; and reviews and auditing of contracts with outside auditors and with the PM. It involves continual questioning both of the ends of the program (why do we want to have this research in the first place? Why is DARPA, and not the private sector or some other government agency, financing it? How do you assess its success in doing so? What are the proper metrics? Etc.). We will come back to the significance of this review process shortly.
The central thrust of NSF research support—and the focus in the present study—is its grants awards for discipline-based scientific research and education. The Agency also has a series of ancillary programs and activities which are organized around specific scientific and policy problems, and/or are explicitly interdisciplinary in character (among which is the program which supports our own research project). Other special programs support research institutions as opposed to individuals and sponsor special conferences.
In its disciplinary programs, NSF presents a sharp contrast to DARPA. Its organization and mode of operation resembles the model which faculty members carry in the back of their mind, as we noted initially. It is basically organized around scholarly disciplines and is designed to support and sustain them. Funds are awarded in the form of grants through a competitive process organized and administered by a program manager. Competitions take place on a regular basis in a schedule announced and publicized in advance. The NSF does not actively solicit proposals. Applicants select the division to which they wish to apply, almost invariably the division corresponding to the discipline in which they were trained. Submissions are evaluated in a peer review process by a panel drawn from members of the discipline. The panel ranks the proposals relative to each other. Funds are allocated to the various divisions at higher levels of the organization (through a process which we did not investigate for the study). Within each division, funds are then generally awarded to proposals in the order in which they have been ranked by the review panel until they have been exhausted.
The role of the PM is, however, not as limited as this conventional picture seems to suggest. program managers at the NSF certainly do not have the wide latitude to define their program and to pick out the investigators who will participate in it that their analogues do at DARPA. However, they are not completely bound by the peer review process. They actually have the power and responsibility to fund proposals out of the order established in the peer review process if, for one reason or another, they believe it is desirable to do so. Furthermore, the attention devoted to the procedures for funding proposals out of rank order in the training and orientation of the PMs implies that this is not an incidental part of their job; that they are expected to continually review and evaluate the panels’ rankings, although they may not often actually act to contravene it. When they do fund a proposal out of order, the decision is usually justified by its importance to the health and progress of the discipline. In this, they do not act alone; they must first obtain the approval of their supervisor in the division. The procedures for obtaining that approval apparently vary somewhat across the agency, but, as it was described to us in interviews, it typically entails a written memorandum which is then discussed and evaluated by the division director. In at least some divisions, these “out of line” proposals are discussed formally and informally among the PMs as a group. Those discussions are part of an ongoing discussion within the division about the direction of the discipline and the kind of research that would be required to sustain it and maintain a balance among its different components. These discussions, we will argue, play a role analogous to the continual discussion and debate which surrounds the research support process at DARPA.
The NSF has a reputation for being extremely conservative with an overwhelming bias in favor of proposals which hover very close to the center of the discipline, in terms of the hypotheses which they entertain and the methodology which they employ. As we have already noted, the surprise launching of the Russian Sputnik in 1958 was attributed to this conservative bias and DARPA was explicitly and deliberately designed to counter-balance it. NSF continues to have that reputation. It was reflected in comments of MIT faculty in virtually every interview we conducted, often spontaneously, but always when respondents were asked to compare NSF and DARPA funding. Many commented that so much emphasis was placed on feasibility at NSF that you actually had to have done the research (or a good part of it) before you submitted the proposal for funds to finance it. Several faculty members said their strategy was to submit proposals to fund research already underway and use the funds to initiate new projects, which then became the foundation for their next grant proposal.
The conservative bias is widely attributed to the peer review process through which funds are awarded. But it appears that the bias is not inherent in the process itself but rather in the way it is organized and administered. That in turn reflects the way in which the agency conceives of its mission, which is to sustain the country’s scientific capability through education and research, a capability which is in turn embedded in the academic disciplines. The PMs have an incentive to emphasize the awards as the outcome of the peer review process to avoid having to justify the outcome to rejected applicants. Their responsibilities, in contrast to those of DARPA managers, leave them very little time to give detailed feedback, a point which our faculty respondents emphasized repeatedly. But more fundamentally, if the PMs fail to intervene in the process it is because they share the biases of the review panels. They are very much a part of the scientific community which the discipline defines. Their backgrounds make it natural that they would think in these terms. Indeed, they are selected for that reason. In contrast to DARPA PMs, the PMs at NSF are drawn from the disciplines whose research proposals they manage. About half of the PMs are career civil servants, the other half are on short-term contracts of one to three years, on leave from university research positions and are often actually paid through their universities at the levels they were receiving as faculty members.
This is not to say that the PMs add nothing to the process. The role of the NSF in reviewing a wide variety of research proposals and the PMs own position within that process gives them a broader vision than any particular review panel is likely to have. But it is still very much a vision of what Thomas Kuhn would call “normal science”, 6 a vision in which progress occurs within the boundaries of the discipline, through adherence to the standards of the community that develops within those boundaries, and which the community promulgates and enforces through the control which it exercises over the careers of its members. The way in which the PMs represent the community was driven home in one of our interviews by one of the respondents who, when confronted with the criticism that the most important criteria in judging a research proposal at NSF was feasibility, gave us a long defense of feasibility as a cannon of “good science”.
One can see this as well in another area where the PMs act with power and discretion helping researchers whom they do not fund themselves find support through other government agencies, acting essentially as brokers and at times even putting together packages of funds from several different agencies. These efforts are facilitated by the extensive contacts which career PMs develop with the Federal research establishment. But they do not seem to see this activity as part of their regular responsibilities to oversee the health of the disciplines for which they are responsible, and they talk about it in very different terms, terms which make a sharp distinction between the discipline approach of NSF and other criteria which might justify a given research project (potential contribution to social welfare or to economic progress, for example).
A final piece of evidence suggesting that it is not the peer review process per se but the orientation of the organization which uses it is provided by the comment of one faculty member who had participated in NSF panels: he argued that the conservative bias in the research which the panels funded reflected the instructions which the panel members received. He and his colleagues, he insisted, were perfectly capable of evaluating and ranking the kind of high risk, original research which DARPA sought out and funded, if they were instructed to do so. It is to be noted that this comment calls into question the central role of the PM at DARPA as much as that of the peer review process at NSF.
We emphasize the dichotomy between the way in which the NSF actually operates and the way in which MIT faculty members perceive its operation, because in terms of the impact of the organization upon the research community, it is not clear which is more important. It is after all the faculty who must actually conceive the research program and carry it through. To appreciate how their perceptions influence the research process, it is important to understand how they think about their work and how they design their research programs. A second set of findings that emerged from this study relate directly to this question.
It is perhaps worth adding at this point a few limited observations about what we learned about the NIH. It is virtually impossible to make broad generalizations about the NIH, given its $30 billion annual budget (fully half of all civilian R&D expenditures) 7 across twenty-seven Institutes and Centers. But several interviews with MIT faculty and Program Officers (Pos, as opposed to PMs) at institutes within NIH provide some context for thinking about the role of the Program Officer at NIH relative to NSF and DARPA.
Program Officers have relatively little discretion is selecting proposals to receive funding. Proposals across the NIH first go to the Center for Scientific Review (CSR) that then categorizes the proposals and assigns them to the relevant institute. The proposals are reviewed by “study sections” (equivalent to a review panel) which score the proposals. The final scores and reports are sent to the Pos who then gather within each institute for a “Paylist” meeting within their division (one level below Institute level) to discuss the awards and decide which programs to fund at what level.
Like PMs in the NSF, Pos can challenge the scoring of a particular proposal, but instead of approaching their supervisor in their division like in the NSF, Pos approach the “Advisory Council”, a body that reviews the study section process, and ask for a special review of a proposal that they consider a “high program priority”. However, this seems to happen infrequently and internal research at the NIH shows that there is a fairly smooth curve demonstrating that as the scores get higher, the percentage of awards at that level gets lower. Going outside the payline doesn’t happen that often. As one PO stated, as much as they like to think they are finding the diamonds in the rough, they are not as aggressive in going beyond the payline as they like to think they are.
Where Pos seem to have more influence is in supporting the overall direction of the Institute’s agenda and new areas of science where they see a lack of investment. For areas of research that are new and where “you would never get something like that approved in a regular study section”, Pos can make the case within their Institute that there should be more attention and investment. This could come through “funding opportunity announcements” (FOAs) which indicate the Institute’s interest in a new area. The NIH may also encourage more research through the creation of new program areas that receive formal set-asides for funding. This currently represents approximately 15–20 percent of all NIH funding. Pos talked about the impact they felt they have had on the development of their field in important new areas of research. This might be in the form of a new program or through a process of “coaching and coaxing” applicants on their proposals for funding in these new areas of research.
As with the NSF, Pos have relatively limited contact with their grantees, usually connecting once a year when progress reports are due. They are also less engaged today in sponsoring conferences than in the past due to budgetary constraints. However, they seem to play an active role in supporting and encouraging next generation Pos to apply for NIH grants and help them navigate the system. This aligns with the NIH’s efforts to lower the average age of grant recipients (the average age is forty-two, with a median of fifty-two). 8
MIT Faculty
The funding agencies are only one side of the research equation. On the other side are the scientists and engineers whom the agencies need to attract if the work they want to support is actually to be carried out. At DARPA, these researchers are aptly referred to as performers . In this study, they are represented by those faculty whom we interviewed at MIT. The interviews suggested that they have a dual motivation. On the one hand they have a profound intellectual commitment to science and engineering, although not necessarily a well-fleshed out research agenda. On the other hand, their position at MIT requires them to raise substantial funds from agencies and organizations on the outside. These funds are not required to support their family. The wide range of opportunities open to the faculty at an elite school like MIT ensures that they will always be able to earn a comfortable living. But the Institute is only committed to paying the academic portion of their salary support. An additional two to three months is viewed as “summer support” and must be raised through research grants and contracts on the outside. In addition, faculty are expected to support a mini-research establishment consisting of overhead on lab space, equipment and administration and a team of graduate students who work with them over the course of three or four years on projects related to the faculty member’s own research. In many respects the research establishment is like a small business and the terms in which faculty members discuss it makes them sound like independent entrepreneurs. 9
Evaluation of Experiences with Funding Agencies
All of the faculty members with whom we talked were very enthusiastic about the intellectual experience of working with DARPA. This is perhaps not surprising given the fact that we were talking primarily to faculty members who had received DARPA funding, although the unanimity of opinion on this score was striking. There were a number of components to this experience. These included the opportunity to interact with other researchers in the various meetings and conferences which DARPA PMs organized in the process of putting together and then executing their programs.
Often these involved encounters with researchers from other disciplines or from outside the university, in private industry and/or in government labs. Several respondents reported that they had developed relationships in this way that fundamentally altered their research trajectories and/or created the foundations for long-term research collaborations. It is to be noted that several of the PMs suggested that this is exactly what they were trying to do in developing their program—although the MIT faculty did not seem to be simply echoing the comments they had picked up at DARPA.
Faculty members also emphasized their interactions with the PMs themselves whom they tended to talk about as colleagues and collaborators rather than merely as research funders or supervisors. These intellectual interactions with the PMs ranged from the initial discussions when the PM was preparing his or her research program to the extensive feedback which the DARPA PMs provided when a proposal was turned down. But they also mentioned the interaction with colleagues working on similar projects in seminars where they were required to present their research in progress as stimulating intellectually and important in the research process.
As noted earlier even the interactions with contract auditors were viewed as part of the intellectual experience, a feature of the way DARPA operates which is not accidental. The auditors are typically seconded from the military and recruited because of their ability to understand the substance of the research and its relevance for the agency’s mission. Since performance standards specified in the DARPA contracts are often deliberately set at levels that are virtually impossible to achieve, auditors spend considerable time trying to understand the obstacles to attaining the specified standards and identifying more realistic targets. Indeed, it is precisely to stimulate this type of discussion that targets are set above realistic expectations.
In addition to the intellectual experience of working with DARPA, two other features were mentioned in interviews. One is the size of the awards, which were, by and large, much larger than could be obtained through the NSF or NIH. The second was the ability to buy expensive lab equipment which could then be used for other projects.
On the downside was the threat that the agency would cut off funding in the middle of a project. Because funds are awarded in the form of contracts rather than grants, and because, as just noted, specified performance requirements were often unrealistic, the agency is in a position to cut off funding not just because of the research performance itself, but actually for any reason. This was a major threat under the administration of Tony Tether; he was believed by our MIT respondents to have cut contracts when budget cuts forced him to reorder the agency’s priorities in ways that were unrelated to the research which the contract initially covered. Funds were also cut when the research suggested that the project itself was not viable and the goals could not be achieved, or when a competing approach to the problem proved to be more successful. Whatever the actual reason, the sudden loss of funding was a particular problem for faculty members who are using the funds to finance graduate students working on doctoral dissertations, and several respondents reported that as a result of their DARPA experience, they had moved to a portfolio strategy for financing, in which they were careful to avoid excessive dependence on a single agency.
The other downside of DARPA funding is the frequent reporting requirements, in many cases every three months. This was particularly a problem for faculty doing basic science (as opposed to applied work), since they often did not have results at these reporting intervals.
In contrast to DARPA, the intellectual experience of working with the NSF was universally characterized as dull, indeed pedestrian. It certainly involved none of the excitement or intellectual stimulation associated with DARPA. Proposal writing was seen as a chore. There was no thought of showcasing the intellectual excitement associated with the work. The widely expressed view that you had to have done much if not all of the work in advance of proposing it eliminated the element of surprise and discovery which the researcher might originally have felt and gave the process a slightly dishonest flavor (although the respondents did not put it in precisely those terms). Our respondents generally view the NSF’s program managers as competent; they talked of them as colleagues and, although they were not asked to compare them directly to DARPA PMs, the comparison was not unfavorable to NSF. But there was little opportunity to interact with them in the way that they interacted with DARPA PMs; they provided little help in preparing proposals and little feedback when the proposals were rejected. NIH project managers incidentally were not respected as colleagues in the way that PMs at NSF and DARPA were; they also do not have the capacity to fund proposals outside of the rank order established by the peer review panels.
Most of our respondents who had received NSF grants had also participated in review panels, but this participation was seen as a chore: people felt obligated to participate to support the discipline and in return for funding they had received, but it was not viewed as a rewarding experience. One could imagine the discussions in the review panel meetings as comparable to the small group meeting which DARPA organized, but they were never discussed in those terms. The range of proposals that the panel members were required to read could have been seen as an opportunity to get an overview of the field but it was never discussed in these terms either.
In sum, the advantages of the NSF were on the “business side”. Here, the main advantage of NSF funding was that once a grant was awarded, the funding was secure, and one could count on it, especially in supporting graduate students. This contrasts with DARPA, where there was always the possibility that funding would be cut off in the midst of a thesis project. Also, NSF gr

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