Defense Media Network

DARPA’s Call to Academia

America’s higher educational institutions and university research centers have been the cauldrons in which many of DARPA’s innovations have been brewed. Over the past six decades since DARPA’s beginnings, the agency has provided generations of academic scientists and engineers opportunities to put their talents to use in service of national security. This partnership between DARPA and academia has become more important as the threats to our society have become more diverse, complex, and sophisticated.

There is a long list of game-changing innovations that were both DARPA-sponsored and had university researchers in leading roles: the internet, self-driving cars, neuro-prosthetics, and speech technologies, to name just a few.

Consider the generation of electrical engineers and computer scientists who conducted their Ph.D. research under DARPA support during the Strategic Computing era of the 1980s as well as the countless other students who were influenced by these efforts. The first wave of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies came to life on machines developed by DARPA-sponsored researchers and ran on chips prototyped using the Metal Oxide Silicon Implementation Service (MOSIS), a DARPA-founded fabrication service that opened innovation in this space to players who otherwise might have been precluded.

The most exciting of DARPA programs often resemble the Manhattan Project or Apollo program, albeit at a much smaller scale.

Later, partnerships with universities advanced the Semantic Web – think here about the structure and tagging protocols of web content – and ignited our aspirations for self-driving vehicles. Materials scientists can tell a similar story, going back to DARPA’s establishment in the 1960s of university materials research centers – dubbed at the time as Interdisciplinary Laboratories (IDLs). These centers laid the foundations for students who worked on projects ranging from high-temperature ceramics to stealth technologies to metamaterials with unusual optical properties. More recently, DARPA has been among those institutions that have nurtured university scientists looking at quantum computing and sensing, the limits of photon detection and imaging, and new paradigms in microelectronics to power the post-Moore’s-law world.

A generation ago, I was one of these students. My own first experience with DARPA was as a graduate student in computer science at the University of Maryland at College Park. I was spending the summer of 1992 working at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and I was attached to a group supporting a new DARPA program – called Manufacturing Automation and Design Engineering, or “MADE” for short – that was just being kicked off. The group I was working for, part of the NIST Manufacturing Engineering Laboratory, had expertise in 3-D modeling and computer-aided design, and we were part of MADE’s government team.

At that moment in my early career, the kickoff meeting at DARPA was unlike any event I had ever attended. Consisting of mostly academic researchers, there were about 40 people representing a strange intellectual cross-section of university life. We had theoreticians and geometers, roboticists and materials scientists, artificial intelligence researchers and entrepreneurs. There were major defense contractors among us as well. Presentations ranged from challenges in the design of missile seekers to a strange new manufacturing process that worked by building up layers of metal, like a printer would, but in 3-D. One of the attendees, upon hearing the talk about the magical “3-D metal printer,” floated an idea that we could scan physical objects using computer vision and then “beam them,” Star Trek-like, over the internet to other places. “That’s a crazy idea!” someone said, dismissively. Yes, crazy indeed. Hmmm, I thought, maybe I’d found my people.

Creating and preventing strategic surprise – an oft-used mantra at DARPA – in this climate requires a new pact between government and academia. DARPA’s call to academia is one that invites university researchers to direct their scholarship, in the spirit of those of previous generations, toward the national security problems of this era.

The most exciting of DARPA programs often resemble the Manhattan Project or Apollo program, albeit at a much smaller scale. That’s what I loved about the DARPA I experienced with the MADE program: There was a sense of shared mission, a respect for the technological possibilities, and a commitment to understand how to transform these possibilities into capabilities for the country. What we learn from looking at DARPA’s history with universities is that national security problems do not care what academic department you are from, what conferences you attend, or what the reviewers of your last journal article said. These challenges simply demand that the brightest minds work together from problem to solution. Scientists like Ernest Lawrence, Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Richard Feynman saw their academic careers as intimately connected to the essential challenges of their era. DARPA has inspired countless engineers and scientists to embrace this same kind of national service.

Fast forward from 1992 to 2014 and I found myself one of those “people” on the technical staff at DARPA, part of the agency’s leadership team, and deputy director of the Defense Sciences Office, where I served until 2017. Now in 2018, we are accelerating into a new era of scientific discovery and engineering innovation, and the technologies being unleashed are proving (as usual) to be simultaneously strange, wonderful, and disturbing. The pace of change is far beyond anything our nation has ever experienced, and the democratization of technologies means that innovation and disruptions can appear from anywhere. While the Manhattan Project required that we establish Los Alamos and a dozen other facilities to carry out the isotope separation, metallurgy, bomb assembly, and other specialized science and engineering functions it would take to build the world’s first nuclear weapons, today globally disruptive innovation emerges from small labs, hackers working with commercial products, anonymous groups on the Dark Web, or even individuals working in their garages. One of the most visible examples of disruptive technology in recent years has been the emergence of the blockchain and associated crypto-currencies whose development trace back to just one scientific paper of uncertain provenance, published by an individual author most likely working under a pseudonym. Indeed, this is both strange and disturbing, perhaps wonderful as well.

DARPA, and the nation, needs the participation of American higher education’s deepest thinkers and most ambitious scientists, engineers, mathematicians, computer scientists, modelers, and theorists, lest we risk losing our technological, economic, and geopolitical preeminence. But many of these strange and disturbing challenges outpace typical government response times, universities’ hiring cycles, and the professional tempo of most faculty and student researchers. Over the past 10 years alone, we have witnessed the emergence of smart phones. CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technology, commercial drones, bio-hacking, quantum computation, deep learning, and the rise of social media. The world is rewriting itself on internet timescales and we struggle to keep pace.

Further complicating matters for the current generation is that, in Thomas Friedman’s words, the world is now flat. Universities representing the United States have been vastly successful in promoting our educational model across the globe. As a result, rather than the United States as the final destination for the best and brightest from around the world who receive their educations at our universities, students now find opportunities for research and scholarship in their home countries and elsewhere. While this democratization of innovation and science has been a boon to education and human well-being on the planet, innovation can now come from everywhere and anywhere.

Creating and preventing strategic surprise – an oft-used mantra at DARPA – in this climate requires a new pact between government and academia. DARPA’s call to academia is one that invites university researchers to direct their scholarship, in the spirit of those of previous generations, toward the national security problems of this era. These problems are pushing us toward the unexplored spaces between disciplines as well as to create entirely new disciplines. Because of this, forward-thinking university scholars are realizing that the ways to evaluate success, impact, and societal value are evolving. Lastly, universities are realizing they have new responsibilities to encourage research that is impactful and relevant to national security. However, such work requires universities to find new mechanisms to support restricted research and scholarship that may touch on sensitive matters – ensuring both academic freedom and faculty, students, and national interests are protected. None of this is easy.

This new era of transdisciplinary challenges is unpredictable and unfamiliar compared to traditional academic routes of advancement. As the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn pointed out in 1962, if we are going to foment scientific revolutions, we are going to need to encourage scientists and engineers to venture into the “crisis” areas in which existing methods are inadequate and anomalies we cannot now explain are bountiful. These explorations should reveal entirely new scientific territories.

As we move forward into DARPA’s seventh decade, the partnership between the agency and universities will continue to open new foundations for our national security and economic well-being. Let us use this sexagennial moment to rethink, refresh, and reinvigorate the historically productive relationship between academia and those in government tasked with tackling some of the most difficult national threats and exciting challenges. This is one of those rare and precious intersections at which national security revolutions emerge. So, to the academic research community: DARPA needs you. The country, for the sake of its future national well-being and security, is counting on you. No pressure. You got this.