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Mundane Powerhouse

In its physical aspect, DARPA is nothing if not mundane. The critical decisions that agency officials make on exotic technologies are rendered in an unremarkable leased office building in Arlington, VA. There are no labs here; DARPA is a funding agency, not a research facility. No sign advertises DARPA’s tenancy to passersby. Except for the anti-eavesdropping gadgets glued to its conference-room windows, this edifice of black-hued glass could pass for an insurance company. But once in the lobby, newcomers must submit their social security numbers to “Visitor Control.” Guards ask, “classified or unclassified?” and make sure guests stay in sight (around here, it’s a no-no to wander into a hallway in search of the water cooler, and telephones bear labels warning that conversations are recorded).

The offices are filled with about 240 employees, of whom  half are technical staff-program managers whose job is to shape the work DARPA funds and scour the country for promising new ideas. In keeping with DARPA’s antibureaucratic ethos, these managers are not career government employees but experts on loan from universities, corporations and federal research labs, pulling stints at DARPA of between three and five years. “DARPA is the [Department of Defense’s] center for revolutionary ideas. It is a true bottom-up organization where program managers are the heart and soul,” says Anthony J. Tether, the agency’s director. “We hire people who have a dream that they cannot get fulfilled elsewhere….DARPA program managers are by nature risktakers; they are passionate about making a difference.”

It is in the arena of emerging technologies-funding for research makes up 56 percent of the agency’s $2.2 billion 2002 budget-that the greatest triumphs have come. And a look at the agency’s current lineup shows plenty of potential for future successes. Want microscopically small machines? DARPA was an early funder of efforts to produce miniature mirrors, sensors and gauges-devices used in so-called microelectromechanical systems (MEMS)-that are now widely employed in industry. Want tiny, low-powered computers? DARPA is backing work on logic and memory components as small as individual molecules. Want thousands of sensors (or little robots) to synthesize observations and coordinate actions? DARPA is funding the networking technologies and software they’ll need. Want something to quickly detect tiny amounts of viruses and other pathogens? DARPA is working on that, too, and a lot more.

It all adds up to a diverse panoply of projects, but the principle on which they are chosen is the same: “We’re about surprise. Prevent surprise, and create surprise,” says Jane Alexander, the agency’s deputy director. “You need a skunk works, somebody over in the corner who is anticipating what your opponent is doing and what you are going to answer that with, and also is anticipating what your next generation is-what are you going to surprise somebody with. DARPA is that thing.”

But the key to the agency’s success lies not so much in its mission as in its unique administrative model and management philosophy. For starters, before DARPA officials even decide what to fund, “one of the questions senior management asks is, Is somebody else able to do this problem?’ If they are, let them do it,” says Alexander. And if not, DARPA primes the pump-providing enough time and money for the technology to take root in the commercial world. “With the right investment at the right time, I can steer industry toward an area that will be useful. I nudge them.”

These are multimillion-dollar nudges, of course, so the aim is to choose carefully. After hearing from the military about its near- and long-term needs, DARPA’s program managers design multidisciplinary programs to help meet them. Major initiatives-or “thrusts”-usually last four years and incorporate five to 10 research teams; funding typically runs between $10 million and $40 million, and occasionally much more. Whatever the scale, though, DARPA stresses teamwork among research groups and enforces short-term performance milestones. And then, just as feverishly as DARPA begins a thrust, it often pulls out. Either the teams are unable to meet their goals, or they succeed sufficiently that the commercial sector or other research- funding sources pick up the ball. Alex Roland, a Duke University professor of military and technology history, says 85 percent of the agency’s programs fail. “It’s not an aspect of what they do that they want publicly displayed.” Roland says. However, he adds, “You’ve got to expect a high rate of failure because the payoffs are fabulous.”

So where will the next big successes come from? TR canvassed DARPA directors to identify today’s hottest research projects. There’s no guarantee any will pan out. But together they provide a representative look at the agency’s most cutting-edge initiatives-and the direction technology is heading.

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