It’s Time the Civilian Sector Had Its Own DARPA

The Endless Frontier Act is a bipartisan initiative to solidify the United States’ leadership in scientific and technological innovation through increased investments in the discovery, creation, and commercialization of technology fields of the future. Access Partnership’s Michael Clauser and Sarah Skaluba reflect on the purpose behind the bill.

It’s Time the Civilian Sector Had Its Own DARPA

Science is the Endless Frontier. Or so asserted Mr. Vannevar Bush, founder of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in a memo to the President in 1945. Frontiers well-known to Americans—normally as we speed to their very edge.

The military is a regular fixture on the frontier. Captain Miles Standish guarded the Pilgrims at Plymouth while Captain John Smith oversaw the Jamestown settlement. Lewis and Clark were soldiers both, while Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins started as military test pilots.

But not just geographic frontiers. Bob Taylor helmed ARPAnet, the predecessor to the modern Internet, from his office in the US Department of Defense. This makes sense. The American military brings with it the funding, bravery, and security needed to venture into the unknown. However, the military’s presence at America’s technological frontiers invites criticism.

Silicon Valley’s historical relationship with DARPA, as well as other national security labs was, well, cozy. This left US technological innovation vulnerable to accusations of militarization, hidden backdoors in networks, and a conspiring military-industrial complex. Edward Snowden’s NSA data collection controversy only served to popularize and globalize these accusations.

The tarnished perception across foreign export markets damaged US technological leadership and hurt sales, negatively impacting in-house spend on national security R&D in the process. It has also riled both libertarian and progressive employees across the technology sector—uncomfortable with the lethal applications of their craft. This often forces companies to pick between export markets and employees on one hand and the shrinking US defense market on the other. This calculus marked Google’s infamous departure from the Pentagon’s AI-focused Project Maven, as well as Xnor.ai’s decision to do the same immediately after its acquisition by Apple.

Washington wants to buy the best of the best from Silicon Valley.  And many in Silicon Valley earnestly want to serve their country and help their government through technology. But not at the risk of alienating their staff or major foreign customers who could just as easily buy from domestic champions.

To square this circle, the US requires a new, non-military, civilian hub for funding research and commercialization of bleeding edge technologies. The Endless Frontier Act, introduced by Reps. Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Mike Gallagher (R-WI) and Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Todd Young (R-IN) in May 2020, accomplishes this very task.

The bill authorizes $100 billion over 10 years for the development and commercialization of key technologies through the creation of a new “Directorate for Technology” with a mission complimentary to that of the organization’s legacy—and enduring—role to fund basic scientific research.

Don’t let the prosaic name “Directorate for Technology” fool you.

The Endless Frontier Act creates nothing less than a new “ARPA” within a newly styled National Science & Technology Foundation, but devoid of the trappings and accusations of militarization.

This ARPA for the commercial sector will be empowered to make strategic investments and high risk, high reward bets in technologies spanning artificial intelligence, quantum computing, manufacturing, advanced communications, biotech, and cybersecurity, among others. Recipients will span the entire innovation ecosystem, including universities, regional technology hubs, and start-ups alike.

The NSF recently reported that “increasingly, the United States is seen … as an important leader rather than the uncontested leader” in technology. China’s push to close the science and tech innovation gap is only accelerating. China accounted for nearly a third of global R&D growth, compared to 20 percent by the United States. While DARPA’s mission is grounded in “breakthrough technologies for national security,” this new “commercial-ARPA” envisioned by The Endless Frontier Act will help Washington outcompete Beijing on the technological and economic front.

A civilian hub for applied technology will connect the best of US industry with government, so that there will not be another Project Maven embarrassment. This ARPA is also well suited to interact with US allies and partners abroad to establish the relationships necessary to grow US export markets.

Dr. Bush was half right. Science—but also applied technology—are the Endless Frontiers. But with no bucks, there is no Buck Rogers to explore it.

The House and Senate should move swiftly to pass this landmark legislation before they adjourn for November’s election. China is not waiting. And neither should Congress.

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