Credit: DARPA, Geoffrey Ling

How will putting all of DARPA's biological sciences research under one roof help the agency fulfill its mission?

DARPA likes to invest in fundamental science, but unlike the National Institutes of Health [NIH] or the National Science Foundation [NSF], we don't invest only for the sake of fundamental science. We are an engineering agency. We build things: things that fly, things that swim. We have invested in biology before, but we didn't take a firm grip until the last five or ten years.

What changed?

The thing that really drove things forward for us was our investment in neurobiology, synthetic biology and infectious disease. We realized that the technology side of things had now advanced to the point that we are able to make meaningful contributions to the study of biology as a means to developing our capabilities.

Tell me more about how DARPA's approach differs from other science funding agencies.

DARPA's model is different, but I think it's complementary. NIH is superwealthy, with $30 billion. Their job is to look at advancing health-related science. NSF has a budget of $7 billion directed towards more fundamental research. DARPA's budget is less than $3 billion, so we try to make in-depth focused investments that will provide capabilities. That means we don't do investigator-initiated research. We aren't a place for failed R01 applications. We are contract driven, and our program managers choose programs to invest in. Instead of having a hundred $100,000 efforts, we have one big $10 million effort, and we want a product that comes out of that.

What do you see as the BTO's role in President Barack Obama's BRAIN Initiative?

The way President Obama articulated it was fabulous. He didn't say, “I'm out to cure brain cancer. I'm out to cure Alzheimer's. I'm out to cure stroke.” No, he said, “We are going to advance brain research through innovative technologies.” That, to me, is really very cool. I like to say that the scientific community does not lack for hypotheses. What they lack are the appropriate tools to validate those hypotheses. DARPA is here to give them the tools. For example, we know that MRI [magnetic resonance imaging] and PET [positron emission tomography] scans cannot diagnose traumatic brain injuries. That screams out that we need some new imaging modalities. Now, if we develop new tools to study the dynamic state of the brain, then I expect different communities will pick them up and run with them.

Do you see any room for improvement in how the BTO gets its inventions into the hands of the public?

We are treading on new ground. The model never existed here to create true public-private partnership at DARPA. At BTO, the vast majority of products are going to have broader applications, and we want to push them out into the community as fast as we can. In the past, if we were planning on buying 30 F-16 airplanes, then we knew that Northrop Grumman [a defense contractor] can make them. But if we come up with a better thermometer, then we are going to want 100,000 of those things, if not a few million, and that requires a very different model.

How have your tours in Afghanistan and Iraq guided your vision for BTO?

It was a life experience. I'm grateful I had the opportunity to go and serve in that capacity. Today, I never question why I do what I do or who I serve: I serve the service member. I make no bones about it. These are the young men and women who have chosen to be the defenders of our society. BTO will serve them not only when they get hurt, but also to make them more efficient and optimize their ability to do their jobs.