On Friday, President Obama celebrated Darpa, the Defense Department’s premiere research arm, as a hothouse of “cutting-edge ideas to create new jobs, spark new breakthroughs, [and] reinvigorate American manufacturing.” With agency director Regina Dugan at his side, Obama inspected a new armored vehicle — crowdsourced under Darpa’s auspices, and built and designed in just 14 weeks. “Not only could this change the way the government uses your tax dollars,” Obama beamed, “it may save some lives in places like Afghanistan for our soldiers.”
Lost in the celebration was that the Senate Armed Service Committee, just days before, recommended drastically cutting back Darpa’s budget — and singled out the crowdsourced vehicle project as a problem.
The $150 million proposed cut — more than five percent of Darpa’s $2.98 billion budget — not only pits a powerful Congressional panel against a White House which has made science and technology a priority. It also undermines a key component of Dugan’s management of the agency.
For years, Darpa clashed with Congress (and with its Pentagon superiors) about how the agency spent its money. Former agency chief Tony Tether would personally review the hundreds of research efforts in Darpa’s portfolio. And if those projects weren’t progressing according to plan, Tether would withhold their funds until they caught up. That drove Capitol Hill nuts, because it left tens of millions of dollars on the table. What Tether called a simple matter of accountability, Congress called micromanagement, “unobligated funds,” and “poor execution.” Every year, it seemed, one Hill panel or another recommended big budget cuts.