A Cold War-era Pentagon office credited with many scientific breakthroughs would be the model for a new government agency tasked with solving health’s greatest mysteries if President Joe Biden and a Colorado congresswoman have their way.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, was created in 1958 amid fears the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union technologically. It can claim at least partial credit for the invention of personal computers, drones, global positioning systems, weather satellites and the science behind Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine.
DARPA’s success stems from its structure, according to Michael Belfiore, author of “The Department of Mad Scientists.” The agency brings together teams of people from government, academia and the private sector, gives them a hard deadline (usually two to four years) to solve a real-world problem and encourages them to take financial risks.
Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris pitched the idea of a DARPA offshoot to 10 members of Congress in early March, U.S. Rep Diana DeGette of Denver included. Its mission: to find treatments and cures for cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, ALS and more.
The Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, “could take on more risk,” DeGette said during a recent interview. “They could take on more risky projects or projects that might be likely to fail.”
“The whole reason to have government-funded biomedical research is because for a lot of the research that we’re doing, there’s no financial incentive for companies to do it. But then they build on the research that we do and they’re able to develop therapies,” she added.
DeGette, a Democrat, and Michigan Republican Rep. Fred Upton are circulating draft legislation that would create ARPA-H and give it $6.5 billion annually – twice the budget of DARPA. DeGette says she and Upton plan to pass it this year as part of a larger biomedical research bill.
The White House’s science policy office did not respond to a request for comment about ARPA-H. White House chief of staff Ron Klain tweeted June 29 that the Biden administration is “incredibly grateful” for the work of Upton and DeGette.
Annie Jacobsen, author of “The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA,” is more skeptical that DARPA’s military-focused approach is appropriate for biomedical research.
“If the American taxpayers want a solution to civilian health, perhaps modeling it after a military research agency is not necessarily wise,” Jacobsen said.
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