Technology is about taking risks. Government bureaucracy is about avoiding mistakes. The mismatch between the two is creating a funding squeeze that could undermine America’s dominance of the new technologies that will be crucial to the nation’s security in the 21st century. That was the disturbing consensus among a group of the nation’s top scientists who gathered in Phoenix last week to discuss the converging technologies – biology, information technology, nanotechnology, robotics – that are transforming the life sciences. The conference, with the dizzying title ‘Converging, Combining, Emerging,’ was sponsored by the Highlands Forum, a Pentagon-funded group that brings together Defense officials, scientists and analysts for regular discussions. Top Department of Defense officials proposed this gathering to give policymakers a better feel for cutting-edge technologies. The baseline was a warning last summer by the prestigious Defense Science Board that ‘DOD must keep abreast of the most rapidly changing and emerging technologies’ and that DOD ‘lags behind’ in biology. The discussions here highlighted the technological convergence – but also that government agencies aren’t keeping pace. That’s true even of the Pentagon’s celebrated high-tech agency Darpa, which a generation ago supported the basic science that created the Internet. The Pentagon’s new chief technology officer, John Young, who has oversight of Darpa, recognized the need for the agency to better balance long-term science with short-term tasks such as countering improvised explosive devices in Iraq. He also worries about a procurement process in which as much as 40 percent of the military services’ science and technology funding is devoted to congressional pet projects known as ‘earmarks.’ ‘For many years, American science was in a perpetual state of becoming, but I would argue that we have lost our way,’ said Jim Heath, a professor of chemistry at Caltech who described for the group his astonishing work to shrink computer chips down to the size of blood cells. His work was funded a decade ago by Darpa, but several scientists here doubt the Pentagon agency would back such a blue-sky project today. ‘If you have a high-risk, high-yield idea, the best place to execute it is offshore,’ Heath said. Darpa once liked to boast that it funded impossible problems and wasn’t interested in the merely difficult. But in recent years, argued the scientists, Darpa has become nearly as cautious and prone to micromanagement as the government’s science behemoth, the National Institutes of Heath. Before making most of its grants, NIH demands such detailed evidence of success that ‘they are funding the past, not the future,’ one scientist complained. ‘Darpa seems to be shifting to the NIH model – more near-term, more risk-averse,’ said Don Ingber, a professor of pathology at Harvard. He just launched a new Institute of Biologically Inspired Engineering, which is seeking to apply nature’s own designs and control systems to new microdevices that can repair tissue or reverse disease. His young colleague, Robert Wood, explained how he has created a tiny robotic fly, no bigger than a fingernail, which could carry surveillance sensors invisibly into remote areas. One of the most impressive presentations was given by Ted Berger, a professor of biomedical engineering and neuroscience at the University of Southern California. He described his work to build neural implants that could allow the brain to overcome the ravages of a stroke. Already, he has shown that his chips can process signals from a slice of rat brain. Soon, Berger hopes to implant a chip into a damaged section of a rat’s hippocampus, the part of its brain that processes short-term memories into long-term ones. Berger explained the secret of such revolutionary science is that ‘you have to be prepared to jump off the cliff.’ That’s a concept of risk-taking not often heard in the federal government. The conference was co-hosted by the Biodesign Institute, a new project at Arizona State University that seeks to break down the normal walls between biology, IT, robotics and other disciplines. In one lab, scientists are studying how to use bacteria to create biofuels by, in effect, harvesting sunlight. In another, they are building biological structures that assemble themselves into precise grids that could be used as diagnostic tools within the body. It’s the kind of breakthrough research that America desperately needs. But the institute’s charismatic director, George Poste, fears that back in Washington, ‘risk aversion is everywhere.’ Spending a few days with brilliant scientists like these, it’s hard not to get excited about the possibilities for life-changing advances in technology. But listening to their tales of dealing with the government, you sense an America that is enfeebled by congressional meddling and overly cautious decisions by federal bureaucrats. Scientists proceed by trial-and-error experimentation. What’s hobbling the country is a zero-defect political culture that makes even these bold men and women worry that America is losing its edge.
Syndicated columnistDavid Ignatius is published regularly by THE DAILY STAR.