The Pentagon’s research agency has historically maintained a tight relationship with the computing research community. Civilians may recognize some results: the Internet, personal computing, and high-performance computer graphics, says the University of Washington’s Edward D. Lazowska.
But that relationship “has become less close in recent years,” says Mr. Lazowska, the university’s Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering. The situation dominated a House hearing in 2005 after The New York Times reported that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as Darpa, had scaled back financing for basic computer-science research at universities and instead was increasing money for projects that are classified or that promise a more immediate payoff.
Now new leaders are taking over the agency. And Mr. Lazowska says “we’re looking forward to restoring” a relationship whose deterioration is “bad for the field, bad for the nation, and bad for the nation’s defense.”
Last week, the Department of Defense announced the appointment of Regina E. Dugan as director of Darpa, the Pentagon’s arm for bankrolling innovative research that could be important to the military but that is not yet ready to compete for money from the weapons-development bureaucracy. She succeeds Anthony J. Tether, who had been tapped by former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in 2001.
A new Darpa director could be “pivotal,” says said Fred B. Schneider, a professor of computer science at Cornell University who is chief scientist for a cybersecurity center backed by the National Science Foundation. The “evidence” of the director’s power “is seen in how Tony Tether was able to radically change the portfolio of investments Darpa made as compared with his predecessor,” Mr. Schneider says.
“There was a time when Darpa was funding university research at a very high level,” Mr. Schneider says. “(Mr. Tether) deliberately ramped that funding down … stopped funding universities, started funding companies, stopped funding long-term work, started funding short-term work.”
Ms. Dugan, who had been president of a company that develops defenses against explosive threats, “has not telegraphed what she’s going to do,” Mr. Schneider says.
“That’s going to be the next important move, to see whether she’s going to get interested in return to funding university work, and return to funding university work in cybersecurity,” a subject on which Mr. Schneider testified before Congress last month.
At the 2005 hearing, Mr. Tether insisted that the agency continued to support important basic research in computer science and other disciplines. He also said it was difficult to ascertain exactly how much money is going to computer-science projects because computer science may be an element of projects that are listed in other categories.—Marc Parry