Small tech gets a larger piece of the U.S. defense research pie

Dec. 10, 2002 — The research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense earmarked more than $124 million of its 2003 budget specifically for MEMS, microsystems and nanotechnology, and listed programs totaling $805 million that likely involve small tech, according to a Small Times review.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was one of the biggest winners in the Defense Department’s 2003 budget. DARPA spokesman Jan Walker said the agency will receive about $2.78 billion, a 23 percent increase from 2002 and 4 percent more than it requested. The funding will help introduce new initiatives such as the $78 million Biologically Based Materials and Devices program as well as maintain the MEMS and microsystems program and other ongoing efforts.

“DARPA is strong in some areas that seem to be urgent right now,” said Kei Koizumi, director of the Research and Development Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and author of reports tracking science and technology R&D funding trends.

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The Defense Department is the largest federal source of R&D funding, and DARPA serves as its mechanism for developing high-risk, potentially high-payoff research. About 40 percent of engineering research is funded through the Defense Department, according to the AAAS. The department also funds the sciences, but to a lesser degree. It allocates almost half of its R&D money to industry.

Even before Sept. 11 and the war on terrorism, the government recognized it had underfunded its science and technology initiatives and needed to increase investment in programs like DARPA to rebuild its capabilities, Koizumi said. DARPA’s work with sensors, biodetectors and other technologies that help improve national security made it even more likely to get a sizable funding boost.

“Almost everything went up” in DARPA’s budget, Koizumi said. “But that came at the expense of the Air Force and the Navy.”

DARPA, unlike the services, maintains no laboratories or research facilities. The agency hires managers from academia, government and industry and allows them to define and run programs for a few years. Managers distribute funds to researchers in universities and industries and oversee their progress.

“The DoD (Department of Defense) likes that flexibility,” he said. “It doesn’t have to support infrastructure.”

DARPA also rewards researchers whose ideas may be too daring for federally supported funding agencies that award grants through peer review systems. “DARPA always has been a strange organization in the context of other science agencies,” Koizumi said. “It’s very different from the NSF (National Science Foundation).”

DARPA was a critical supporter of the MEMS industry. It launched a program in 1992 that helped develop MEMS and microsystems from a lab curiosity into useful components. The program still exists, although its funding continues to drop. It will get a projected $28 million in 2003, down from about $41 million in 2002.

The budget total does not mean DARPA is withdrawing its support, according to Walker. Other programs incorporate the technologies. For instance, another $114 million program to begin in 2003 called Space Programs and Technology includes the development of advanced MEMS as one of its missions for the year.

The 2003 budget also includes more references to nanoscale science and technology thrusts. Efforts range from the study and development of nanoscale biomaterials to nanomechanical arrays.

Koizumi said the Defense Department’s interest in miniaturization and DARPA’s goal to support pioneering and forward-looking technologies complement nanotechnology research and development. “I see it only getting more heavily involved,” he said.

Small tech may be in line to receive even more money in 2003. DARPA made its appropriations request and a breakdown of programs and missions available earlier this year. The budget document does not include the 4 percent increase and is subject to recalculation, Walker said. DARPA’s figures vary slightly from those used by Koizumi, who pegs its final budget closer to $2.7 billion.

Congress approved the $355 billion defense appropriations bill in early October, and President Bush signed it into law Oct. 23.


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