The DARPA model works, in part because successful research products can be handed off directly to a closely associated user community (the military services). Although the NASA aeronautics program does not enjoy this advantage, DARPA’s success implies that NASA should strive to nurture an environment that tolerates risk in aeronautics research, as difficult as that would seem to be given the need for risk aversion when it comes to civil aeronautics, where human life is in the balance. The DARPA experience also presents a model for an aeronautics research strategy that combines technology push and mission-requirements pull, with three caveats:
The U.S. civil aeronautics industry by nature tends to focus on low-risk (and low-cost) solutions to immediate problems and thus is not an ideal source of requirements for a long-term research program with significant risk tolerance.
Organizations in the U.S. civil aeronautics community have diverse interests and needs and very rarely speak with one voice on the value of or the requirements for any particular aeronautics R&T project.
Like NASA, DoD maintains a large institutional base of facilities and a civil service workforce as an integral part of its investment decisions and program formulation. However, DARPA does not and is therefore permitted far more freedom in funding and program decisions.
Thus it is unrealistic to expect that NASA’s civil aeronautics program will be able to create the same requirements process and constituency support base that DoD has created, nor will it be able to employ the same innovation-driven model that DARPA has enjoyed. It may, however, be possible to create a virtual requirement process guided by decadal surveys of requirements and priorities.
Likewise, NASA does not have the resources to recreate joint government-industry efforts on the scale of SEMATECH or the Human Genome Project, but those two grand efforts do demonstrate the value of joint undertakings, and NASA may wish to pursue a similar model on whatever scale available resources allow.
Carayannis, E.M., and J. Alexander. 2004. Strategy, structure, and performance issues of precompetitive R&D consortia: Insights and lessons learned from SEMATECH. IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management 51(2).
Collins, F., M. Morgan, and A. Patrinos. 2003. The Human Genome Project: Lessons from large-scale biology. Science 300(April 11).
Frazier, M., G. Johnson, D. Thomassen, C. Oliver, and A. Patrinos. 2003. Realizing the potential of the genome revolution: The genomes to life program. Science 300(April 11).
Spencer, W.J., and T.E. Seidel. 1995. National technology roadmaps: The U.S. semiconductor experience. Proceedings of the 4th International Conference on Solid-State and Integrated Circuit Technology, Beijing, China, October 24-28.