From DARPA to Google, the search for sources of innovation

Regina Dugan, the head of the Pentagon's research arm, is going to Google. What her move means in the global race for innovation.

Anette Polan / Wikimedia
Dr. Regina Dugan, displaying her interest in scientific research on her hand, is leaving the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to work at Google.

The hottest competition today among nations is not really over military advantage or financial prowess. Rather, it is more basic. Countries are in a race to learn how to be more creative in science, technology, and culture.

One result is a firmer shepherding hand by governments to spur not only innovation itself but innovations in how to be more innovative.

That’s why it is worth noting that Regina Dugan is leaving as head of the Pentagon’s research arm to work at Internet giant Google.

Even more noteworthy is how Ms. Dugan fostered creativity at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Her easy transfer between Washington and Silicon Valley shows how government and the private sector can interact in positive ways to exchange fresh ideas in encouraging researchers to be more creative.

Like AT&T’s former research arm, Bell Labs, DARPA has been the source of much of the world’s transforming technologies, such as the Internet and global-positioning system (GPS). (Bell Labs gave us the transistor, the laser, photovoltaic cells, among other things, winning seven Nobel prizes along the way.)

DARPA also follows the usual path to nurture breakthrough thinking: Hire smart people. Push them toward both basic science and its practical application. Encourage them to work across disciplines and to exchange ideas freely and cooperatively.

But Dugan adds a special incentive. She tries to eliminate fear of failure.

A researcher’s fear of failure, or rather the avoidance of looking ridiculous, often stifles creative juices. “We cannot fear failure and create new and amazing things,” Dugan says, noting how childlike creativity must be.

Freedom from fear allows a researcher to push back the limits of accepted thought in order to be more open to new ideas. Creativity “is not a stock of things that can be depleted or worn out, but an infinitely renewable resource that can be constantly improved,” notes a recent report called the Global Creativity Index.

The freedom to explore also helps to instill courage, which is needed whenever a researcher must learn how to deal with “radically ambiguous situations and to move forward in the face of uncertainty,” write MIT scholars Richard Lester and Michael J. Piore in a 2004 book, “Innovation: The Missing Dimension.”

Dugan’s approach at DARPA isn’t widely followed in other countries, where governments often use coercion or whip-snapping commands.

In China, the Communist Party is shifting its industries to produce higher-value products, hoping to rely on “indigenous innovation” rather than continue taking technology from other countries. But as the World Bank stated in a recent report, China must first “provide researchers with the freedom to pursue interesting ideas and interact with other researchers both at home or abroad.”

The bank also calls on Chinese leaders to have less influence over people’s lives and “allow nongovernmental players to form networks in new and interesting ways, and create space for innovation and creativity.”

In Europe, worries over America’s advantages in innovation have led to a stronger government role in research, often at great financial cost. The Airbus industry, for example, came about only after heavy subsidies for aeronautical research.

DARPA, of course, also subsidizes private research as well as its own. But what really counts in the end is not so much the government hand but how it is wielded in the lab.

“Be nice to nerds,” says Dugan, even as she quotes French statesman Georges Clemenceau: “Life gets interesting if you fail because it means we’ve surpassed ourselves.”

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