The Imagination Drain

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The Pentagon fumble in which military officials essentially published on the Web the full version of a supposedly censored report was news last week. But occurring beneath the news radar is a more fundamental cyber-security problem: the Bush administration’s cutting the funding of university-based information technology research by nearly half over the last three years.

Since 1961, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, or DARPA, has distributed IT research dollars in largely open-ended grants to universities. The grants encouraged basic research aimed not at marketable innovations but at basic scientific mysteries. DARPA and its investments have paid off handsomely nevertheless.

Its legendary role in developing the Internet as a free-for-all instead of a commercially owned space is widely known. Less so are its militarily and commercially important developments, such as global positioning satellites, the JPEG file format for efficiently storing photographs and Websearching technologies like those later refined by Google.


Since the terrorist attacks of 2001, however, Homeland Security officials have pushed DARPA to rein in its democratic funding systems. Grants once available to universities can now flow only to military contractors, and graduate student support once open to the most excellent thinkers can be offered only to U.S. citizens. Administration officials say the changes are needed to keep technological innovations out of the hands of potential terrorists. The effect may be instead to dampen imagination itself.

U.S. dominance in technological innovation is already at risk, with the U.S. share of scientific publications dropping behind that of Western Europe, and Asia’s output increasing rapidly. Edward D. Lazowska of the University of Washington and David A. Patterson, the chairman of UC Berkeley’s computer science division, argue in the May 6 edition of Science Magazine that the DARPA reforms have “put the innovation pipeline at risk” by “derailing the extraordinarily productive interplay of academia, government and industry in IT.”

Though administration officials say they are calling for a 5.5% increase in the government’s total R&D; budget for next year, virtually every dollar of that is earmarked for “deliverables” -- Pentagon-speak for technologies that can be quickly deployed in a particular military arena.

DARPA was created at the height of Cold War paranoia. It was founded, however, on trust -- on a belief that the United States could achieve global leadership only by attracting the best and brightest minds. The new regime typifies a very different philosophy, based less on faith in ideas than on a desire to narrow and ultimately suppress them.