The Ideas Engine Needs a Tuneup

By David Ignatius
Sunday, June 3, 2007

PHOENIX -- 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 leading scientists who gathered here last week to discuss the converging technologies -- biology, information technology, nanotechnology, robotics -- that are transforming the life sciences. The conference was sponsored by the Highlands Forum, a Pentagon-funded group that brings together defense officials, scientists and analysts for regular discussions.

Top Pentagon 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 the Defense Department "must keep abreast of the most rapidly changing and emerging technologies" and "lags behind" in biology. The discussions here highlighted the technological convergence -- but also the fact that government agencies aren't keeping pace. That's true even of the Pentagon's celebrated high-tech agency, the Defense Advanced Research Projects 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 roadside bombs in Iraq. He 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 the California Institute of Technology, 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 took on impossible problems and wasn't interested in the merely difficult. But in recent years, the scientists argued, DARPA has become nearly as cautious and prone to micromanagement as the government's science behemoth, the National Institutes of Health. Before making most of its grants, the NIH demands such detailed evidence of success that it is "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 has 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 robotic fly, no bigger than a fingernail, that 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 that 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 walls between biology, information technology, 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 such as 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 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.

The writer co-hosts, with Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues at His e-mail address

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