The following is a guest post by our friends at Bard College's MBA in Sustainability Program (a 3p sponsor) - for the business leaders of the future who recognize the importance of all business moving towards true sustainability—economic, environmental, and social.
By Brady McCartney
In light of Tesla Motors' May 2013 announcements that the company earned its first quarterly profits in its 10-year history and, subsequently, repaid its loan from the Department of Energy (DOE) nine years ahead of schedule, it seems like an appropriate time to revisit the question: Can Congress and federal agencies play a significant role in developing innovative solutions to the nation’s most intractable problems? In modern American history, one must look no further than the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to make the case that the federal government can play a role in creating and promoting innovation.
In 1973, Congress passed the Mansfield Amendment, which limited defense research through ARPA to projects with “direct military application” and ended ARPA’s focus on dual-use (military and civilian) technology. It was at this time that ARPA officially changed its name to DARPA. The timing of these changes coincided with the maturation of DARPA’s ARPAnet, the precursor network to the Internet. In hindsight, Congress seems shortsighted in enacting the Mansfield Amendment of 1973. After all, ARPAnet and the concepts behind it would go on to transform the U.S. economy when they were made available to the civilian population and the Internet was born.
When the Vietnam War ended, industrial competitiveness began to trump defense concerns as the primary driver of research. During the 1980s and 1990s, the U.S. government’s focus on international competitiveness grew and R&D funding for dual-use technologies returned. It was during this time that DARPA’s connection to the computer industry and Silicon Valley resurfaced. In particular, DARPA successfully made the argument that semiconductors were integral to defense technology and an important technology to produce in the U.S. rather than buy from Japanese semiconductor companies. Thus, 14 companies within the semiconductor industry received funding from a five year, $500 million DAPRA grant to pursue a technology now found in devices such as computers, radios, and solar photovoltaic panels.
When President Bush took office and appointed Tony Tether to head DARPA in June 2001, the agency’s focus on dual-use technologies once again came to an end. Though the agency’s mission has shifted, DARPA has continued to show Congress and other federal agencies how to successfully innovate within the federal government.
The author, Brady McCartney, is currently a dual MBA/MS degree candidate at Bard College’s MBA Program in Sustainability and Center for Environmental Policy as well as a researcher at Resources for the Future. Follow Brady on Twitter.
[Image Credit: Wesley Fryer, Flickr]