Canada joining the rush to create a Darpa

Trudeau government set to fulfil campaign promise for version of legendary US innovation agency, amid mixed expert assessment of its wisdom

January 17, 2022
Children pose in front of a promotional poster during the finals of the DARPA Robotics Challenge to illustrate Canada joining the rush to create a Darpa
Source: Getty

Canada is taking steps towards creating its own version of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), with hopes of big gains for academic science battling doubts of whether it is the right solution to an actual problem.

Darpa has gained legendary status since its founding in 1958 for its tactic of funding highly improbable technical pursuits that rarely succeed but sometimes do spectacularly. Its full or partial credits include the personal computer, the internet, satellites, GPS, drones and stealth warplanes.

Canada is now looking to join a series of imitators in the US and abroad. The Trudeau government, which has pledged C$2 billion (£1.2 billion) for a Canada Advanced Research Projects Agency, is likely to propose an initial investment in its annual budget this spring.

As in other attempts to replicate the magic of Darpa, Canada has both eager enthusiasts expecting a major boost for scientific research in academia and beyond, and those warning that the US originator enjoys a unique set of circumstances not easily copied.

That general concern is especially true for Canada, said John Hepburn, the chief executive of Mitacs, a not-for-profit facilitator of nationwide industry-university partnerships. Before Canada worries about generating more scientific innovation, Dr Hepburn said, it needs a policy of industrial support that will help its inventors resist selling to the US the research advances that they already do achieve.

The US also has a research capacity that is an order of magnitude larger than that of Canada, and when that is combined with the $700 billion (£500 billion) budget of the US Defense Department it means that Darpa has a freedom virtually unmatched in Western society to lose huge quantities of money on low-odds research pursuits, he said.

“It reminds me of the trips everybody used to take to Israel to learn their secret sauce for innovation, without taking into account the secret sauce in Israel was to be surrounded by neighbours that wanted to kill them,” said Dr Hepburn, a former vice-president for research and international at the University of British Columbia. “This Darpa fascination is the same thing – you’re trying to adapt something in a completely different system.”

Others, however, regard the Darpa model as a badly needed break from the traditional styles of research funding, where federal grant awards are seen as often going to university scientists with detailed study proposals that win collective approval in a peer-review setting, thereby producing incremental and somewhat expected advances in areas already generally understood.

A Canadian Darpa might not be necessary to move beyond that habit, said one of the idea’s most prominent backers, Robert Asselin, the senior vice-president for policy at the Business Council of Canada. But so far, said Dr Asselin, Canada’s three major research funding agencies have not been able to break through that pattern of “academic gatekeeping” that protects incumbent scientists.

A more fundamental frustration among Canadian leaders over their national scientific enterprise is that tendency to sell off research discoveries. Before taking the risk of directing billions of dollars towards a Darpa model, Canada should first take advantage of its existing scientific expertise by identifying industries where it could compete better globally and then directing investments towards them, Dr Hepburn said.

Dr Asselin argued that both strategies made sense. A Canadian Darpa also would help to stem Canada’s tendency to sell off its research innovations because the model relies heavily on fostering close interactions between industry and academic science, he said.

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