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a founder and chief scientific officer of Xoma Corp. a biotech company in Berkeley California who joined the council in 1996 and later served as chair Scannon had been recruited by a DARPA program manager touring the country’s biotech hotbeds and he was one of the few industry members on the council “I thought that it was incredible to have a federal agency with the foresight to be interested in these problems” says Scannon who has also sat on and chaired major biodefense advisory boards for the departments of Defense and Homeland Security during the Bush and Obama administrations To make the case for the breadth—and prescience—of the council’s deliberations Wadley ticks off a partial list of studies conducted in 1997 “Improving human performance novel applications of VLSI [very large-scale integration of transistors on a computer chip] just-in-time electronics multifunctional dynamic natural systems [involving biomaterials] uninhabited vehicles—and that was in 1997” he recites “Some of those were one-off things while others like improving human performance ran on for several years as we would dig deeper and deeper into the topic” Tony Tether who was DARPA’s director from 2001 to 2009 attended the summer sessions and seemed quite eager to hear what the council had to say according to several members “The enthusiasm began to wane under Regina [Dugan who succeeded Tether] and the council never really recovered from that” Wadley says “But I don’t blame her There are other organizations that can run quick studies for them” Walt takes issue with that last point The council was never a job-shop he insists Unlike its more famous counterpart JASON which advises the government of sensitive military matters the council didn’t address pressing problems facing the agency or answer questions about specific technologies Rather he says its scientists tried to look into the unknown and then share with DARPA officials what they saw “We never provided recommendations and we weren’t asked for our advice” Walt says The fact that members received an annual consulting fee—in the low five figures according to Walt—allowed the council to attract younger scientists who might otherwise not have been able to afford time off from their career ladders But the real reward members say was the opportunity to exercise their minds for a cause greater than themselves “Our job was to come up with ideas that related to the future needs of the nation” Walt says “Sometimes we got it right and sometimes we got it wrong But everybody left their egos at home and there was no huffing and puffing up your own work” Budgets not a big deal at DARPA DARPA directors seem to have a surprisingly blasé attitude toward their annual appropriation from Congress “I never really felt constrained by money” says Tony Tether who led the agency from 2001 to 2009 “I was more constrained by ideas” In fact many former directors say that a significantly larger budget than the current $29 billion might even damage the agency’s ability to launch new projects and kill those that aren’t working “When an organization becomes bigger it becomes more bureaucratic” says Larry Lynn DARPA’s director from 1995 to 1998 who says he successfully lobbied Congress to shrink his budget after the Clinton administration had boosted it to “dangerous levels” in 1993 and 1994 to finance the short-lived technology reinvestment program By 1999 DARPA’s budget had returned to roughly its 1992 level of $25 billion after approaching $4 billion in 1994 The 9/11 attacks sent DARPA’s stock soaring again Tether says Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld floated a 5-year plan that would have boosted DARPA’s budget to $7 billion right after he arrived at DARPA causing Tether to raise a red flag “I said ‘If you want to put it in go right ahead But don’t expect me to justify it I don’t have the slightest idea how to do that’” Tether says Rumsfeld laughed and said ‘OK We can always get it for you later’” One reason DARPA directors may feel less restricted by their annual budgets than the heads of other research agencies is the high turnover of projects For most agencies programs continue indefinitely even as individual grantees may come and go But at DARPA roughly one-fifth of its portfolio disappears each year freeing up a sizeable pot of money for program managers to tap into DARPA directors have devised various ways to manage that constant flux “I would bring all the office directors into the room for 2 days and everybody got the chance to describe their programs” explains Victor Reis who served as director under President George HW Bush “Then we rank-ordered them—do you want A or B and on down the line We were done within a couple of hours and every office director got to vote on every program And we left space for a mulligan” The ability to move money around so freely is a luxury not available to the heads of many federal agencies But it can also have its downside—the risk that directors will get too far down into the weeds in reviewing every project The problem was acute under Tether who says he wears the label of “nanomanager” with pride “With only a quarter of the budget coming free each year he was OK the first year” says one source familiar with DARPA’s budgeting process “But eventually it was the entire fricking budget And you just don’t have the time to do that “So [Tether] underspent by several hundred millions of dollars every year” explained the source who requested anonymity “And eventually the Pentagon and Congress noticed and started taking the money away” DARPA’s budget took a steep downturn in the last few years of Tether’s tenure after having risen sharply in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks *You can read our full DARPA feature here who joined the council in 1996. were amicable. 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See more pictures of this trend here Another journalist.

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