Using messenger RNA to make vaccines was an unproven idea. But if it worked, the technique would revolutionize medicine, not least by providing protection against infectious diseases and biological weapons. So in 2013 America’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) gambled. It awarded a small, new firm called Moderna $25m to develop the idea. Eight years, and more than 175m doses later, Moderna’s covid-19 vaccine sits alongside weather satellites, GPS, drones, stealth technology, voice interfaces, the personal computer and the internet on the list of innovations for which DARPA can claim at least partial credit.
It is the agency that shaped the modern world, and this success has spurred imitators. In America there are ARPAS for homeland security, intelligence and energy, as well as the original defense one…Germany has recently established two such agencies: one civilian (the Federal Agency for Disruptive Innovation, or SPRIN-d) and another military (the Cybersecurity Innovation Agency). Japan’s interpretation is called Moonshot R&D.
As governments across the rich world begin, after a four-decade lull, to spend more on research and development, the idea of an agency to invent the future (and, in so doing, generate vast industries) is alluring and, the success of DARPA suggests, no mere fantasy. In many countries there is displeasure with the web of bureaucracy that entangles funding systems, and hope that the DARPA model can provide a way of getting around it. But as some have discovered, and others soon will, copying DARPA requires more than just copying the name. It also needs commitment to the principles which made the original agency so successful—principles that are often uncomfortable for politicians.
On paper, the approach is straightforward. Take enormous, reckless gambles on things so beneficial that only a handful need work to make the whole venture a success. As Arun Majumdar, founding director of ARPA-e, America’s energy agency, puts it: “If every project is succeeding, you’re not trying hard enough.” Current (unclassified) DAROA projects include mimicking insects’ nervous systems in order to reduce the computation required for artificial intelligence and working out how to protect soldiers from the enemy’s use of genome-editing technologies.
The result is a mirror image of normal R&D agencies. Whereas most focus on basic research, DARPA builds things. Whereas most use peer review and carefully selected measurements of progress, DARPA strips bureaucracy to the bones (the conversation in 1965 which led the agency to give out $1m for the first cross-country computer network, a forerunner to the internet, took just 15 minutes). All work is contracted out. DARPA has a boss, a small number of office directors and fewer than 100 program managers, hired on fixed short-term contracts, who act in a manner akin to venture capitalists, albeit with the aim of generating specific outcomes rather than private returns.
Excerpt from Inventing the future: A growing number of governments hope to clone America’s DARPA, Economist, June 5, 2021