BOX 6-4
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA),a created in 1957 in the wake of Sputnik, has a long record of supporting high-risk, interdisciplinary research. DARPA is probably best known for its support of the ARPANET, the precursor to today’s Internet, and stealth technology. In 1960, it began to fund the interdisciplinary laboratories, which played a critical role in fostering materials science and engineering in the United States. By the time DARPA transferred the program to the National Science Foundation in the early 1970s, it was supporting 600 faculty in physics, chemistry, metallurgy, materials science and engineering, and electrical engineering. More recently, DARPA launched a research program in FY 2000 called Bio:Info:Micro,b which funded six interdisciplinary teams of researchers in biology, information technology, and microsystems technology to deepen our understanding of neuroprocessing and regulatory networks.

DARPA has been successful in supporting high-risk, high-return IDR for a number of reasons,c among them:

  1. Solicitations are focused on hard problems or emerging scientific and technical opportunities, not disciplines.

  2. Offices are not organized around disciplines. At least 13 science, engineering, and medical disciplines are represented in the 20-person technical staff of DARPA’s Defense Science Office.

  3. The Department of Defense is willing to invest a small percentage of its budget (less than 1 percent) in radical innovation, but this tiny fraction of their budget is substantial—$3 billion.

  4. DARPA continuously recruits high-quality program managers, who generally stay for 4-6 years. This ensures a steady stream of new ideas.

  5. DARPA program managers are responsible for developing research programs. They define the problems, typically through continuous interactions with the research community on the one hand and the user community on the other hand. Thus, they are familiar both with the national technology capabilities that need to be developed and with the cutting-edge science and engineering issues, barriers, and opportunities that, if addressed with serious resources and creative interdisciplinary approaches, might lead to revolutionary advances.

  6. DARPA program managers not only develop the programs but manage proposal solicitation and selection. Thus, they have complete control over which proposals to fund. They encourage risky and less mature ideas than are normally tolerated at agencies that rely on the more traditional peer-review process.

  7. DARPA has no “entitled constituencies” and can fund research in academe, industry, and national laboratories

  8. DARPA is willing to fund larger grants, which are often necessary to put together a “critical mass” of researchers in different disciplines.

  9. DARPA program managers often play a hands-on role in encouraging interaction between the research teams they are funding.


DARPA home page. http://www.darpa.mil/. Accessed April 30, 2004.


Bio:Info:Micro Program Solicitation. http://www.darpa.mil/baa/ra00-14.htm.


Dubois, L. H. “DARPA’s Approach to Innovation and Its Reflection in Industry.” In Reducing the Time from Basic Research to Innovation in the Chemical Sciences. A Workshop Report of the Chemical Sciences Roundtable. 2003. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.

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