Saturday, December 10, 2011

DOD funding : Part 1

Here is a series of posts I made about research funding from the department of defense in 2011. They appeared on an old blog that I used to keep, but that I eventually retired. I plan to return to this topic in my new blog, since much has changed in my thinking since these posts were written. I thought it would be a good idea to have this material available for context.

Nov. 2011

In this post I attempt to explain my position on DARPA, especially as it relates to funding synthetic biology. In a nutshell, I will not accept or pursue funding from DARPA or any other department of defense agency to fund my research on synthetic biology. I do not believe that research into new technologies for military purposes is in the best interests of humanity. Thus, if the primary goal of the funding agency is military in nature, then I want no part of it. Furthermore, because of the potential power of synthetic biology and the associated risks, I believe that it is important that it not be developed in the context of the military at least until it is better understood in other contexts such as health, energy, and the environment.

Synthetic biology is an engineering approach to biology. The idea is to understand how to program new subsystems and eventually new organisms in the language of DNA. Synthetic biology goes beyond genetic engineering, which might involve inserting a few genes borrowed from one organism (say a bacterium) into another organism (say a plant) to produce, for example, an herbicide-resistant corn. Rather, synthetic biology aims to produce entirely new behaviors in which organisms can sense their environments, communicate with each other, compute, and ultimately respond by making new molecules, growing, sporulating, etc.

An example challenge in synthetic biology might be to reprogram a patient's immune system cells to detect and destroy cancer cells. It is the ability of cells to very specifically detect precise molecular markers that engineers are particularly keen to harness. Other examples involve synthesizing materials such as proteins, drugs, or fuels. Coupled with the ability to release such substances in specific molecular contexts, synthetic organisms could someday have as fine of control over matter as do naturally occurring plants, animals, bacteria, and viruses.

Enter DARPA, whose aim (posted on their web page) is to "maintain the technological superiority of the US military". In particular, the goal of DARPA's Defense Sciences Office (DSO) is to "bridge the gap from fundamental science to applications by identifying and pursuing the most promising ideas within the science and engineering research communities and transforming these ideas into new DoD capabilities". Combine these aims with the ideas of synthetic biology and you get research into bio-warfare. I realize that the Biological Warfare Convention outlaws research into offensive weapons in this area, but there is no question that we're talking about designing new life forms to "maintain the technological superiority of the US military". By distancing themselves from the applications of the technology, DARPA can create a "capability" in this area without doing actual bio-warfare research.

Of course, the new DARPA program does not explicitly list bio-weapons as a focus - that isn't how DARPA works. But the specific applications mentioned are all clearly dual use. The idea is to let academics work on uses academics can live with, and to gently steer the conversation toward capabilities that DARPA would like to have in the military-industrial community.

I should mention that I have received defense funding in my career and I know whereof I speak. As a graduate student and as a postdoc I worked in labs with substantial DARPA funding. As an assistant professor I was a co-PI on a small DARPA seed grant that didn't go anywhere. More significantly I was a co-PI on [a] fairly large AFOSR MURI grant, that ended only earlier this year. All of these projects were to study control systems and/or robotics. In particular, I worked on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) which I have come to think of as some of the more insidious weapons ever devised. After (a) learning in detail about how research funded by the DOD works and (b) getting into synthetic biology and understanding its potential, I have made what I think is a fairly informed choice. I am happy to say my research program is now completely funded by non-defense sources and it is going along just fine.

Dec. 2011

A recent article appearing in Nature News describes the debate over funding from DARPA for synthetic biology (a follow up article appeared at The Last Word on Nothing). I am even quoted in it in a way that reasonably accurately describes my position. This is pretty new to me. The last time I was quoted in the scientific press, all they took from me was "Man, ants are cool".

In the article, my position on DARPA funding for synthetic biology is shown in contrast to how others in my community feel. In paritcular, Andy Ellington is quoted in the Nature News article as saying:
...the idea that scientists should not work with defense funding relies on a "1960s paranoid view of the military".
US R&D Funding in 2011 from R&D Magazine
My friends are now calling me a hippie - which is fine (I like hippies), although I think I actually have a realistic and not paranoid view of the military. To wit, beyond the complex and difficult to predict risks of combining the military with synthetic biology, my biggest objection to military R&D funding is that its main purpose seems to be to perpetuate the military industrial complex. We feed it with new ideas, which creates new problems, requiring more new ideas, and so on. In 2011 the US spent about $145B on R&D with $80B going to defense research and $3B of that going to DARPA. This money gets spent developing new weapons. A lot of defense R&D money goes to defense contractors, but a fairly large chunk goes to academic researchers. Academics brought you all sorts of the ideas you will find in, for example, the predator drone: autonomous flight, teleoperation, composites, etc. Now we are working on robotic dogs, and autonomous trucks. What are we going to with those in Afghanistan?

What happens to the weapon systems the US develops? Two things. First, our military tries them out in various wars. The US has been involved in a war somewhere in the world every single year since WWII, and each one is a technological tour de force (even though we don't ever seem to win). Second, US defense contractors sell the weapons to other countries for them to try out in their wars. War is big business, and it keeps a lot of people in the US employed; it makes a lot of people rich. More efficiency and better technology in war is our gift to the world.

In the meantime, our own infrastructure is decaying. Roads, levees, the railway system, public education, even the Internet are falling apart. And the planet is heating up, the oceans are dying, people are starving to death, and we are sitting ducks when it comes to emerging infectious diseases and mono-crop failures. How much research do we do on fixing those problems? Not a heck of a lot. The department of energy is currently arguing over the budget for the Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (ARPA-E), which is currently $180M and likely falling. Our world is falling apart, and we are trying to figure out environmentally friendly ways to make explosives.

So my question is this: As a country, how do we want to spend our expendable income? How about solving some of our planet's most vexing problems? Imagine the impact of getting us and the rest of the world off of fossil fuels? I would feel a lot better about the future if we were all working on that. Even better, selling whatever that technology turns out to be to other countries might have a bigger impact on "defense" than anything else we do.

So am I a paranoid hippie? Or is the US completely off-balance in how it spends its money? I am making the choice not to be a part of the military industrial complex. It probably won't change anything, but I'll feel better about my life's work. And if we could invent an environmental industrial complex, or a global-health industrial complex, I would be first in line.

Dec. 2011

Some guy named Howard posted on The last word on nothing that he was "dismayed by academics who criticize the military without understanding how they think. It's ignorance, not righteousness". Here's my response.

Erika's article only states that I spent a few hours working on a problem without questioning it. The fact [is] some academic researchers are happy to solve whatever problems you throw at them without really questioning [them], and the sense that I was becoming one of them, is what disturbed me.

Issue #1: People seem to be saying: "If we are going to make bombs, we might as well make them greener." Or: "If we are going to make bombs, we might as well make them hard to put back together after they explode."

Not a small number of academics make this argument. It only works, though, if you agree with the "If we are going to make bombs" part -- which I don't. I emphatically believe that we spend way too much time and effort on weapons in this country and have decided I want no part of it. I don't want to make them. I don't want to enable others to make them by answering the question "Could you do X?".

Issue #2: The way one answers the question "could you make X" is by building a prototype. Here are some questions for you, Howard: Could you build a virus that selectively infects Irish people? Could you make a probiotic that secretes ricin when it senses its host is lactose intolerant? Of course you could ask these questions differently so you don't sound like you want weapons. Can you make a bacterium that "enables on-demand production of new and high-value materials, devices and capabilities" and then create a $30M program to get academics to explore it. The academics will come rushing in because that sounds so cool. And they will say things like "my research is out in the open" and "the US doesn't work on bio-weapons" and "nothing I work on could ever be useful".

Then, as the quarterly meetings with military researchers go on for the next 5-10 years, ideas are thrown around, and newer capabilities, newer questions, and newer possibilities for how bad guys can do bad things are generated. DOD thinkers think about DOD things. Its what they do. Two generations of graduate students grow up thinking about defense capabilities for synthetic biology. Academics make prototypes of all of these ideas (DARPA wants results and demos -- a good chunk of that $30M will go to gene synthesis) as proof of principle, and the whole effort becomes that much more sophisticated. Eventually we get deployable capabilities that go into production because somebody realizes they've got something that can create strategic surprise.

Think that sounds crazy? This process is how the question "can you make a remote control drone that delivers payloads to waypoints" gave rise to remote control airplanes flying around college campuses, communicating via wireless, and landing with pinpoint precision in central campus. Lots of fun! But those graduate students went on to work for defense contractors, research led to development, and now we get nasty predator drones pissing off everybody. Wait until you see the basketball-sized UAVs that can fly inside buildings (almost sure to show up in the next war). We will even sell these things to other countries. Its big business.

But, yes Howard, I am ignorant. I don't understand how military people think. And I can't think like them. I do very clearly understand what the product of military research is, though. New capabilities to make war. Why would I want to be a part of that?