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DARPA pioneered the internet — its model can change how our future unfolds

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President Biden’s budget request to Congress features $7 billion dollars to launch two new Advanced Research Projects Agencies (ARPAs): an ARPA for health and an ARPA for climate. In recent weeks, others have called for ARPA-like models to advance economic competitivenessagriculture and labor. New ARPAs can fundamentally change what our future looks like. But to succeed, we must get the ARPA model right.

The inspiration for all of these proposals is the original: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Started in 1958 at the height of the Cold War, DARPA’s decades of radical innovation have recast military systems and changed military outcomes — and also seeded artificial intelligence, developed advanced microelectronics, and started the internet. In 2006, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) was formed to serve the intelligence community, and in 2009, the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E) was started in the Department of Energy. Today, we know the model works, and we know it can be adapted to different national purposes.

So yes, please, let’s also deliver ARPA-scale advances for health, climate and jobs. But unlocking the power of the ARPA model for these very different challenges requires much more than affixing the name. 

To understand how, start with why. Behind every call for a new ARPA is a yearning to throw open doors to fundamentally better solutions for America’s critical problems. Dozens of other countries have longer life spans and lower infant mortality rates. Many millions of Americans are unable to access our nation’s rich opportunities and make their contribution. We are not yet on track to contain and manage the damages of a changing climate. And global competition means that U.S. research fuels industries and jobs around the world, not just here at home. 

Today our country is asking its research and development community to step up to these make-or-break challenges. That will take something wholly different from the excellent public and private capabilities that we already have for basic research and product development. Now we need to add a kind of innovation that pierces both technical and institutional barriers to create new capabilities at the outer edges of our imaginations. 

That’s where the ARPA model shines. Here’s an example. Developing a vaccine for a new infectious agent used to take years or decades. But when the coronavirus pandemic hit, Moderna was able to ship its first COVID-19 vaccine doses for clinical trials just 42 days after the sequence for the spike protein was known. A DARPA program made that possible

DARPA didn’t come up with the idea of using mRNA to generate protective proteins in individuals’ cells, nor did it develop the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines that are protecting millions of people today. But a decade ago, when conventional researchers and pharmaceutical companies considered the concept a nonstarter, a DARPA program manager challenged the fledgling mRNA community to create a platform for rapid protection against a new pathogen. To get there, a collection of companies — including Moderna — worked under DARPA’s contracts to advance many streams of research, integrate them into the first-ever mRNA vaccines and take them through preclinical and early clinical trials for known but unsolved infections like Ebola and chikungunya. This progress changed minds about mRNA vaccines. Major pharmaceutical companies and the National Institutes of Health started teaming with the DARPA performers and building on their advances. That’s why Moderna and others were ready to sprint when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. DARPA’s work turned basic research into a revolutionary capability — one that fundamentally changed what was possible. 

This is how ARPAs take and manage risk to generate their off-the-chart advances. An empowered program manager, a bold goal tied to a vital national purpose, a rigorous plan. Companies, universities, nonprofits and other government entities funded to deliver prototypes, tools and convincing evidence. Users and implementers brought along on the journey from wild dream to demonstrated reality. Every program learns. Not all succeed, and failure is accepted as integral to the mission. But the programs that do succeed fundamentally change how the future unfolds. 

This model is completely different from government’s longstanding approach to disbursing grants for basic research, which very successfully serves the important goal of generating new knowledge. That’s why for any new ARPA to succeed, it must have a budget and staff independent of existing research agencies, as well as a strong leader who can build an organization and culture honed for the mission of creating breakthrough capabilities. 

If we do this right, new ARPAs can give us unimagined ways to turn the tide on our most critical societal challenges. Congress and the Biden-Harris administration have the opportunity to give new ARPAs the space and resources to grow. The stakes are high. Let’s give it our best shot.  

Arati Prabhakar is the CEO of Actuate. She served as director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency from 2012 to 2017.

Tags ARPA ARPA-E COVID-19 vaccines DARPA Health sciences Joe Biden life sciences Medical research Moderna mRNA RNA vaccines the defense advanced research projects agency

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