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May 03, 2005

Defense Science Board on the Impact of Changes to DARPA IT R&D

As I was updating the IT R&D policy resources page here in anticipation of it appearing as a link in a soon-to-be published Science magazine OpEd on the state of federal support for computing research (titled "An Endless Frontier Postponed" -- watch this space for details), I realized that I hadn't yet posted a link to this recently released report (pdf) from the Defense Science Board. The report includes an excellent appendix that notes the impact policy changes at DARPA will have on the Defense Department's long-term mission. Here's what I wrote on the IT R&D page:

In February 2005, the Defense Department's Defense Science Board -- an independent advisory committee comprised of researchers from academia, government, and industry -- released an examination of the microelectronics industry, which provides hardware capability that "underlies much of America's modern military leadership technology." Part of that examination involved a review of DOD's research efforts in the space to determine if the Department is doing what it can to "secure continued 'Moore's Law' improvements in processing capacity that will enable it to maximize the advantages inherent in its superior sources of information and the superiority of the algortihms and networks that are used to process and benefit from them." What they found is that changes in emphasis at DARPA have impacted DOD-related research long-term:

Historically, the rapid rate of growth in U.S. microchip capability resulted from a robust national portfolio of long-term research that incorporated both incremental and revolutionary components. Industry excelled in evolutionary technology developments that resulted in reduced costs, higher quality and reliability and vastly improved performance. DOD now is no longer perceived as being seriously involved in -- or even taking steps to ensure that others are conducting -- research to enable the embedded processing proficiency on which its strategic advantage depends. This withdrawal has created a vacuum where no part of the U.S. government is able to exert leadership, especially with respect to the revolutionary component of the research portfolio.

This development is partly explained by historic circumstances. Since World War II, the DOD has been the primary supporter of research in university Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) departments, with NSF contributing some funds towards basic research. From the early 1960's through the 1980's, one tremendously successful aspect of the DOD's funding in the information technology space came from DARPA's unique approach to the funding of Applied Research (6.2 funding), which hybridized university and industry research through a process that envisioned revolutionary new capabilities, identified barriers to their realization, focused the best minds in the field on new approaches to overcome those barriers and fostered rapid commercialization and DOD adoption. The hybridization of university and industry researchers was a crucial element; it kept the best and the brightest in the university sector well informed of defense issues and the university researchers acted as useful "prods" to the defense contractors, making it impossible for them to dismiss revolutionary concepts whose feasibility was demonstrated by university-based 6.2 efforts that produced convincing "proof of concept" prototypes. As EECS grew in scale and its scope extended beyond DOD applications, a "success disaster" ensued in that EECS essentially "outgrew" the ability of the DOD to be its primary source of directional influence, let alone funding. Furthermore, DOD never developed a strategy to deal with this transition. With pressures to fund developments are unique to the Defense (e.g., military aircraft, tanks, artillery, etc.), the DOD withdrew its EECS research leadership. Recently, DARPA has further limited university participation, especially as prime contractors, in its Computer Science 6.2 programs, which were by far its most significant investments in university research (vastly outstripping 6.1 funding). These limitations have come in a number of ways, including non-fiscal limitations, such as the classification of work in areas that were previously unclassified, precluding university submission as prime contractors on certain solicitations, and reducing the periods of performance to 18-24 months.
-High Performance Microchip Supply, Defense Science Board, February 2005, Appendix D, p. 87-88

The entire report is available here (pdf).

So add the DSB to the growing list of organizations, advisory committees, congressional committees, and the press that have noted their concern for the impact of DARPA's policy shift.

A reminder: the House Science Committee will hold a hearing on "The Future of Computer Science Research in the U.S." on May 12, 2005. Appearing as witnesses before the committee will be Jack Marburger, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; Anthony Tether, Director of DARPA; Bill Wulf, President of the National Academies of Engineering; and Tom Leighton, Co-Founder and Chief Scientist of Akamai Industries, and also the Chair of the PITAC Subcommittee on Cyber Security. All Science Committee hearings are webcast live (and then archived for later viewing as well). And, of course, we'll have all the details here.

Posted by PeterHarsha at May 3, 2005 01:15 PM | TrackBack
Posted to Policy