Many of the advances that contribute to national security resulted from early investment in developing new technologies, the director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency told Congress yesterday.
Dr. Arati Prabhakar represented the Defense Department at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing called to address concern that the national investment in research and development had shrunk since 2001, along with the education pipeline for young scientists and engineers.
The directors of the Office of Science and Technology Policy of the Executive Office of the President, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the Energy Department also testified at the hearing.
“DARPA is part of Defense Department science and technology investments,” Prabhakar said. “We’re also part of this much larger national ecosystem for R&D. But within those communities, we have one very specific role: to make the pivotal early investments that change what’s possible so we can take big steps forward in our national security capabilities.”
DARPA’s output is technology, but the organization counts its mission complete only when the technologies change outcomes, she added.
“Every time a stealth fighter evades an air defense system, every time a soldier on the ground is able to place himself precisely with GPS and get the data he needs, every time a radar on an aircraft carrier allows us to see a threat to a carrier strike group before it sees us — that’s when we count our mission complete,” Prabhakar said.
In every case, DARPA made a pivotal early investment that showed the technologies were possible, and what followed from that, Prabhakar said, was equally important.
“That was the investment, often by our partners in other parts of the Defense Department and the military services — their science and technology investments, their development investments or their acquisition programs,” the director said. “Of course,” she added, “many in industry were involved deeply in those efforts, and ultimately to make those technologies into real capabilities for our warfighters.”
Along the way, as DARPA focused on its mission of investments for national security, the organization’s scientists and engineers planted some of the seeds that formed the technology base that the U.S. commercial sector has built layer on layer above the foundation, Prabhakar said.
“Every time you pick up your cell phone and do something as mundane and miraculous as check a social networking site, you’re living on top of a set of technologies that trace back to that early work we did,” she added. “Public investment laid that foundation. Billions of dollars of private investment and enormous entrepreneurship is what built those industries and ended up changing how we live and work with these technologies.”
DARPA’s mission of creating breakthrough technologies for national security is unchanged across more than five decades, she told the panel, but the world in which DARPA invests and pursues its mission continues to change, and so do the things DARPA does that reflect the national security and technology context in which the organization must operate today.
“In one arena, we see information at massive scale affecting every aspect of national security,” the director said. “So if you look in our portfolio today, you will find game-changing investments in cyber and in big-data programs.” One example is work DARPA is doing to tackle the networks that drive human trafficking around the world, she added.
In another arena, Prabhakar said, DARPA is looking at what’s happening with the cost and complexity of military systems today.
“We recognize that [such systems] are becoming too costly and too inflexible to be effective for the next generation of threats we will face around the world,” Prabhakar explained, “so at DARPA we are investing in programs that are fundamentally rethinking complex military systems.”
DARPA is investing in technology its experts believe will lead to powerful new approaches for radar, communications, weapons and navigation, she said.
“And in a range of research areas, we can see the new seeds of technological surprise,” Prabhakar said. “One example is where biology is intersecting with engineering today, and in areas like that, we are making investments that will lead to new technologies like synthetic biology and neurotechnology.”
Another expert who testified before the committee, National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis S. Collins, mentioned a breakthrough neuroscience project that Stanford University is working on with funding from NIH and DARPA and the National Science Foundation.
“Traditionally, researchers have studied the postmortem brain by cutting a specimen into slim slices. While all that slicing generates neat, two-dimensional images, it also makes it impossible to reconstruct the connections of the brain’s tens of billions of neurons,” Collins said. “What if we could study the details of the wiring and the location of specific proteins in transparent 3-D?
“Using a chemical cocktail,” he continued, “researchers at Stanford University — supported by NIH, NSF and DARPA — have figured out a way to do just that. They’ve dubbed their technique ‘Clarity,’ and in an extraordinary technical feat, the team made possible a 3-D tour of an intact mouse brain illuminated by a green dye that marks the neurons.”
Clarity is now being applied to human brains, he added, and undoubtedly will advance the BRAIN Initiative, a research effort unveiled by President Barack Obama and Collins in April 2013. In his State of the Union message last year, the president addressed research and development and its value to the nation.
“If we want to make the best products, we also have to invest in the best ideas,” Obama said. “Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy — every dollar. Today, our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s. They’re developing drugs to regenerate damaged organs, devising new material to make batteries 10 times more powerful.
“Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation,” Obama added. “Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the space race.”
During her testimony yesterday, Prabhakar also discussed the nature of the world today and its relation to research and development.
“In many ways we are living in very challenging times,” she said. “Technology is getting more and more complex, [and] it’s moving at a very rapid pace. Other nations are jockeying for position in global affairs, and many of them … are making their own aggressive moves to build their own science and technology capabilities.”
Meanwhile, here at home, she added, many are dealing with constrained resources, and many agencies are dealing with the corrosive effects of sequestration.
“But when I step back and look at what we have done over many decades in this country, I would observe that we have had a long and very successful commitment to investing in R&D as a nation,” the director told the panel. “And when we make that investment in R&D, we are investing in two things that are deeply American.”
One is the kind of creativity sparked by the open society that is the hallmark of the United States, she said, and in this case the nation is investing in the creativity of its scientists and engineers.
“The second thing is this drive to create a better future,” Prabhakar added. “And in a sense, this is the most productive kind of restlessness you could possibly imagine.