Plenary speakers at SPIE Defense and Commercial Sensing emphasize R&D impact

02 May 2023
William G. Schulz
A full house at the opening plenary presentations for 2023 SPIE Defense + Commercial Sensing in Orlando
A full house at the opening plenary presentations for SPIE Defense + Commercial Sensing 2023 in Orlando. Credit: Lotus Eyes Photography

Bringing the fruits of scientific and technical research to bear on wider societal issues and problems was an overarching theme of the first two plenary presentations at SPIE Defense + Commercial Sensing (DCS), 30 April to 4 May in Orlando, Florida, USA.

First up, while Uncle Sam may want you, DARPA, the US Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, is hiring. The agency’s Deputy Director of Strategic Technology, Whitney Mason, brought a “Scientists Wanted” poster with her to her 1 May plenary talk at DCS. 

“What I want to do is inspire you to come to a hugely exciting place to be and to work there,” she told the DCS audience about the Defense Department R&D funding agency, which is located just outside of Washington, DC. She reminded the crowd of some of the DARPA “crown jewels,” including early development of the internet, the global positioning system (GPS), self-driving cars, RNA vaccines research, and more.

But DARPA doesn’t have its own laboratories. As a grantmaking agency, it doles out some $4 billion per year for unclassified R&D projects alone in hopes of creating “paradigm shifting solutions” of benefit to national security. Its stated mission is to prevent and impose (on adversaries) technological surprise. The agency’s heartbeat is its corps of 100 program officers, subject matter experts who serve four-year stints helping DARPA identify high-risk, high-reward projects worthy of funding.

Nearly everybody at DARPA is a temporary employee, Mason noted. “We come for, on the order of four years, bringing great ideas, inspiring change, and then we leave, and most people don't actually get to finish the programs that they start. We have limited tenure. But we are also brilliant, present company excluded, and we have a lot of autonomy in deciding what it is that we do. Deputy directors and directors don't tell program managers what to do. They bring the ideas and the vision, and we help them execute.”

Whitney Mason of DARPA gives a plenary talk at DCS 2023

Plenary speaker Whitney Mason inspired scientists and researchers to sign up to work with DARPA. Credit: Lotus Eyes Photography

The successful DARPA program manager in one of its six offices, Mason said, “has to be really risk tolerant, you have to accept that your idea might not work. And in fact, you shouldn't be convinced that it's going to work. You should have kind of a glimmer in your eye that you think it's going to work — but you're not sure.”

Creating massively disruptive technology for DARPA means being able to tolerate the likelihood of failure. Mason said she tells program managers that if their program is completely successful, they didn’t try hard enough. “Doing something outside of the norm is what we try to do. That doesn’t mean that we do science for the sake of science. There has to be a purpose, and it has to tie into national security in some fashion.”

Big areas of emphasis at DARPA right now, Mason said, include projects on autonomous aircraft — think F-16s flying by themselves — programs on artificial intelligence (AI), including multiday workshops on trustworthy and ethical AI; and Innovation Fellowships, two-year positions for early-career scientists and engineers focused on high-impact exploratory efforts. The latter is “founded on the idea of what if, for example, somebody could connect a bunch of computers together and establish a common communication protocol,” Mason said. She encouraged anyone with interest in these programs, or who has research ideas or interest in becoming a DARPA program officer to visit the agency’s website.

Pradeep Fulay of the NSF's Technology, Innovations, and Partnerships (TIP) directorate

Plenary speaker Pradeep Fulay introduced the audience to the NSF's new research efforts. Credit: Lotus Eyes Photography

From the US National Science Foundation, Pradeep Fulay of the agency’s new Technology, Innovations, and Partnerships (TIP) directorate gave an overview of this fledgling effort to bring forth use-inspired research. For example, he serves as program director for the agency’s new Convergence Accelerator Program. He said the program will focus on use-inspired research that can really deliver tangible results, products, and services.

Another program will identify institutions that have a high volume of research funded but less in the way of translational science or technology transfer outputs. He said the idea will be to partner those institutions with “mentor institutions” to drive greater success.

“TIPs mission is really to harness the work of the vast and diverse talent that exists everywhere throughout the United States. We want to make sure that we tap into that talent. A lot of our programs are structured to enhance fostering innovation everywhere.”

Related SPIE content:
New initiatives and trends at DARPA

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