On Jan. 7 at a meeting of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, officials from the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, known as DARPA, presented what they believed were the characteristics of this defense-oriented research agency that have allowed it to innovate and succeed over it’s decades-long history. Skeptical, PCAST members questioned DARPA officials about the true source of DARPA’s perceived success.
Regina Dugan, director of DARPA, presented three general aspects of DARPA that she believes led to its success. DARPA’s research is focused on questions at the intersection of basic and applied science, is driven by a constant purpose and is motivated by a need to deliver solutions to vital problems, Dugan said. She referenced some of DARPA’s groundbreaking inventions such as the Internet, stealth technology and global positioning systems.
But during the question-and-answer period, Eric Lander, co-chair of PCAST, said that the National Institutes of Health also fit Dugan’s description.
Dugan and Deputy Director Kaigham Gabriel said that the success of DARPA is due to factors beyond just the basic characteristics of the agency.
Gabriel said “’Project’ is the most important part of our name.” He mentioned that the agency is “thoughtfully ruthless” about projects that are not working and are not necessarily interested in large, long-term investments.
PCAST Co-Chair Harold Varmus said that DARPA’s success was due in large part to its program managers, officials who are in charge of overseeing specific areas of DARPA’s research.
DARPA officials acknowledged the uniqueness of the program manager role as compared with that of NIH staff. Program managers are hired from outside the government to facilitate specific research endeavors and, after three to five years, they return to the private sector, officials said.
Gabriel summed up DARPA’s model, saying that program managers “come, serve and leave.”
Varmus said that he would be interested to find out more about how program managers interact with grantees.