There's always been a tension at Darpa, the Pentagon's far-out research arm, between helping fight today's battles and funding projects that might impact the war twenty years down the line... or go nowhere at all. Generals want the latest toys from the Defense Department's answer to James Bond's "Q." But without Darpa's daydreaming, there'd be no stealth fighter, and no Internet.Back in 2003, the Senate Armed Services Committee was worried enough about Darpa getting overly-practical that it launched an investigation into whether the agency had "raided" its basic research budget to finance "near-term goals."Now, the Times reports, Darpa is cutting its funds for "open-ended 'blue sky' research by the nation's best computer scientists... in favor of financing more classified work and narrowly defined projects that promise a more immediate payoff."
This week, in responding to a query from the staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Darpa officials acknowledged for the first time a shift in focus. They revealed that within a relatively steady budget for computer science research that rose slightly from $546 million in 2001 to $583 million last year, the portion going to university researchers has fallen from $214 million to $123 million.The agency cited a number of reasons for the decline: increased reliance on corporate research; a need for more classified projects since 9/11; Congress's decision to end controversial projects like Total Information Awareness because of privacy fears; and the shift of some basic research to advanced weapons systems development.In Silicon Valley, executives are also starting to worry about the consequences of Darpa's stinting on basic research in computer science."This has been a phenomenal system for harnessing intellectual horsepower for the country," said David L. Tennenhouse, a former Darpa official who is now director of research for Intel. "We should be careful how we tinker with it."University scientists assert that the changes go even further than what Darpa has disclosed. As financing has dipped, the remaining research grants come with yet more restrictions, they say, often tightly linked to specific "deliverables" that discourage exploration and serendipitous discoveries.Many grants also limit the use of graduate students to those who hold American citizenship, a rule that hits hard in computer science, where many researchers are foreign..."Virtually every aspect of information technology upon which we rely today bears the stamp of federally sponsored university research," said Ed Lazowska, a computer scientist at the University of Washington and co-chairman of the advisory panel. "The federal government is walking away from this role, killing the goose that laid the golden egg."THERE'S MORE: Darpa may be investing more in super-secret computer science research. But overall, the agency's proposed classified budget has shrunk by over a third, a Congressional source tells Defense Tech.