DARPA’s new chief pilot changes course

An encouraging blast from agency’s glorious past.

By Marvin Cetron
Pres, Forecasting Intl

Regina Dugan, 19th director of DARPA, focuses on R&D, not “widgets.”

You may have heard it before. “There’s hard—and then there’s DARPA-hard.” DARPA-hard problems lie somewhere beyond the cutting edge of technology. They inhabit the wild country between basic science and application, where bright ideas spin off game-changing innovations.

They are problems like finding a handful of red balloons. If that example doesn’t make a lot of sense, keep reading. It will. And that says something about Regina Dugan, who last year became the 19th, and first female, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Based on credentials alone, Dugan is a good match for the position. She is a mechanical engineer with a substantial background in counterterrorism, mine detection and research management. Her technical papers include titles like “Axisymmetric buoyant jets in a cross flow with shear transition and mixing,” her 1993 doctoral thesis, and “Demonstrator Performance at the Unexploded Ordnance Advanced Technology Demonstration at Jefferson Proving Ground (Phase 1) and Implications for UXO Clearance,” in 1998.

She got her undergrad and master’s degrees at Virginia Tech and her PhD at Caltech. In 1999, she led a counterterrorism task force for the Deputy Secretary of Defense. Between 2001 and 2003 she served as a special advisor to the Army Vice Chief of Staff, completing a “Quick Reaction Study on Countermine for Enduring Freedom.”

During her first tour with DARPA, Dugan was a program manager. Her best known work during this period, 1996–2000, was the Dog’s Nose program, which attempted to locate land mines by sniffing out vapors from their explosive charges.

As if this weren’t enough, Dugan has founded 2 companies, serving as president and CEO of each. Dugan Ventures dates from 2001. It is a niche investment firm that builds high-tech companies, one at a time. RedXDefense, started in 2005, works on new ways to combat explosive threats.

It is a notably different background from that of her immediate predecessor, Anthony Tether. An electrical engineer from Rensselaer Polytech and Stanford, Tether had already had a long career in program management. His hands-on technical work was some 30 years behind him when he took on the directorship in 2001. Dugan’s approach to DARPA is different as well.

Tether was the agency’s longest-serving director, but he was also one of the most controversial. Under his leadership, DARPA shifted its focus away from the kind of high-risk gamble that in earlier years had produced such triumphs as stealth technology and the Internet.

Instead, it concentrated on “deliverables”—the kind of high-tech widgets that will make a difference in the field next year, not a decade or two down the line. To some, this was a logical response to the times.

The US had suffered disastrous attacks by al-Qaeda. It was involved in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It might, as many in government believed, soon have to take on Iran. It needed all hands focused on the immediate problem.

For the intelligence community, DARPA’s search for red balloons pioneered new methods based on Internet social networks. A team from MIT found them at the map locations (R) in less than 9 hrs.

Yet to others this was evidence that Washington’s answer to Industrial Light & Magic had lost its way. This is where the red balloons come in. The idea came from a group of DARPA fellows—midlevel military officers posted to the agency for a few months in the hope that they might do something innovative and useful.

Dugan insisted on it, goosing them repeatedly until a DARPA-hard challenge emerged. DARPA moored 10 red balloons in national parks around the country and offered a $40,000 prize for the first team of volunteers able to find them all and enter their locations—within tolerances of less than 1 arc-second—into a contest website.

It sounds easy. It wasn’t. The experts agreed that traditional intelligence techniques could not do the job. Instead, the teams were supposed to approach the problem by organizing online social networks to find the balloons. Almost 500 teams from around the world volunteered to try.

Many began with only a day or so of preparation. It took less than 9 hrs to announce the winner—a team of social-networking experts from MIT. They had needed just 4 days to recruit and organize nearly 5000 people around the country who carried out the search.

It was a tribute both to the power of social networking on the Internet—DARPA’s most famous invention—and to Regina Dugan’s abilities as an imaginative leader. “It’s what I imagine it’s like working for Steve Jobs,” Dan Kaufman, head of the Information Processing Techniques Office, said in an interview with The New York Times.

“The amount of intellectual pressure we’re put under all day, every day, is significant and beyond anything in my professional experience.” Kaufman himself is a tribute to Dugan’s vision of DARPA. He is not a career scientist with government experience. He is a lawyer who used to run a video game company and has been chief operating officer at DreamWorks Interactive—a joint venture between Microsoft and the film company.

Kaufman is probably not a choice Tony Tether would have made. In fact, reversing, or at least dramatically modifying, some of the choices Tether did make became something of a theme in Dugan’s first year on the job.

There are reasons for that, even beyond Dugan’s more freewheeling innovative style. One key to DARPA’s success has always been its close relationships with leading research universities. Under Tether’s leadership, those relationships deteriorated badly. For example, in 2005, the last time officials discussed the issue, DARPA revealed that financing for university computer scientists had fallen from $214 million to $123 million, even as research funding in their field rose from $546 million in 2001 to $583 million in 2005.

Guidelines for basic research funding also changed in ways the academic community found unfortunate. Longer-term projects suffered as DARPA abbreviated its funding periods and subjected each project to an annual go/no-go decision. A lot of work was classified or faced prepublication review. And some financing was strictly limited to US citizens.

New priorities

In Sep 2009, just 2 months after taking office, Dugan made the rounds of 6 major universities trying to mend fences. On the list were Virginia Tech and Caltech, her own educational homes, plus Texas A&M, UCLA, Stanford and UC Berkeley. Her main message—happy days are here again. Or at least happier days.

DARPA really does appreciate the work of top researchers in critical fields and wants to restore its relationships with them. Those annual reviews are history. So, wherever possible, are classification and prepublication reviews.


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