DARPA and our Future Innovation Policies

If you’re a follower of US science and technology policy, you likely have heard and read a lot about the DARPA (The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the Pentagon’s independent research arm.  DARPA gets this attention for a reason.  It has an impressive track record:  it “invented the internet” or at least pioneered its early development and rollout.  And, it’s also backed major breakthroughs in major fields like semiconductors, autonomous vehicles, and satellites.

For many, DARPA represents a path not taken—where the US could have assumed a more expansive role in investing in R&D and scientific advancements. If we were going to get serious about industrial policy, we’d likely do it with some version of DARPA, which has a great track record of making investments that provide benefits for government agencies, businesses, and the general public.  (There’s a reason why DARPA-like agencies exist at the Departments of Energy and Homeland Security too).

If you’re intrigued about the history and potential future of DARPA or DARPA-like institutions, you’d be hard pressed to find a better guide than a new book entitled The DARPA Model for Transformative Technologies.  (A potential alternative title?  “Everything you ever Wanted to Know about DARPA but were Afraid to Ask”).  The book is edited by Bill Bonvillian, Dick Van Atta, and Pat Windham, all of whom have toiled long years in the technology policy world.  It’s a deep dive, with 15 chapters digging into DARPA’s history, processes, and industry connections.   This is a highly varied set of contributions, but the final concluding chapter does a good job of summing up.  DARPA is a high performance organization, but its success is highly dependent on the robust innovation infrastructure around it.  If we want to see more successful innovation polices, we can’t just clone DARPA.  We also need to make real and sustained investments in innovation across the board.  NOTE:  The book is available for free download here.