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Forgetting the public future

 

By Scott Bradner

 

One of the historically most important forces in technological innovation has apparently decided to focus on the short-term at the expense of the future.  The New York Times felt that this change was important enough for a front page mention and to dedicate a quarter of the first page of the business section to the story.

 

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) (http://www.darpa.mil/), according to the enabling memo, was established “to engage in such advanced projects, essential to the Defense Department’s responsibilities in the field of basic applied research and development which pertain to weapon systems and military requirements."    While it has alternated names between ARPA and DARPA a few times it has been a steadfast supporter of cutting edge (and beyond) research in a wide variety of fields since being established in 1958.  Most importantly, the DARPA program managers have maintained a flexible definition of what might "pertain to weapon systems and military requirements." 

 

I first heard about DARPA in the early 1960s when I was working at Information International, Inc. and have been the recipient of a (very) small amount of the more than $65 billion that DARA has spent over the years.  The DARPA funded research that may be most familiar to the readers of this column is in the area of packet networks including the ARPANET, generally considered to be the start of the Internet.  But DARPA funded research in many other areas, some of which are mentioned in the 1997 "Transitions" document (which talks about research which has transitioned from research to actual use). (http://www.darpa.mil/body/pdf/transition.pdf)  It would not be reaching much to say that most of what we currently recognize in the areas of computing and data networking is a result, at least in part, of DARPA funded research.

 

But things are changing.  The Times report, titled "a blow to computer science research," says that DARPA has been reducing the amount of money they are spending on "blue sky" research at universities and shifting those funds to focus on short term, and classified, work with a closer tie to "military requirements."  DARPA says that the shift is a result of events such as the 9/11 terrorist attack and an increased reliance on corporate research.  DARPA has also instituted requirements that research projects only employ US citizens.

 

These changes are, at best, very short sighted. Its fine to spend money to have corporations do classified, US citizen only, research but if DARPA continues to cut off support for open basic research at universities our technical and economic future is threatened (and by "our" I mean the US not just universities).  Alternate funding for such research is limited -- for example, the funding for the US National Science Foundation (NSF) has been essentially flat and NSF's grant review process does not encourage support for out of the ordinary ideas.

 

This is not a good time for people who are worried about maintaining the US edge in technological development.  Fewer students are interested in these areas (for example, only 1% of the students accepted into Harvard for next year said they were interested in computer science) and, with less federal grant money, there will be less money to support graduate students and that will result in less research and fewer advanced degrees which will result in fewer teachers for tomorrow's students.

 

Governments are the only ones funding research that may fail, startups cannot afford to do so, and if only safe research gets funded we will retreat from the leading edge.

 

disclaimer: Harvard is basically an experiment for most incoming students -- few fail and, while others at Harvard my share my opinion, the above lament was created without any input from the university.