Program Managers have the ability to deploy money without much overhead

For seedling programs, as long as it’s below $1m program managers can basically just write a check. DARPA PMs use seedling programs to ‘acid test’ the riskiest pieces of a program idea.

Modern program managers need to get approval from their director to write larger grants and they need to work through official government vehicles like open grant calls and government websites. 😭 However, they are the only person reading the grant proposals and don’t need to check with anybody before deploying the money once it’s been allocated. This process is still fast compared to other funding agencies like the NSF where there is literally a committee that deliberates over grant applications (The government grant process depends on politics and committees) and even large companies or universities, where you need to submit a request before spending a large chunk of money.

In the past there was almost no oversight over PM spending after the director authorized the money. This is how J.C.R. Licklider was able to “Johnny Appleseed” computing groups all over the country in only a year. The transition from ARPA to DARPA was coupled to more oversight on military spending, which inevitably introduced more process.

The ability to deploy money without much overhead is important for many reasons including making it worthwhile to write smaller checks, opening the door to more collaborators, and just plain moving fast. If it is an equal amount of pain for the PM to write any sized check and the same amount of pain for a performer to apply for any amount of money, there will be some threshold below which the money is not worth the effort. Small amounts of friction can have large effects. This means only larger projects, which take more time and are more serious, killing two critical pieces for getting to breakthroughs: feedback loops and play. High-overhead, formal grant applications weed out many potentially useful collaborations like people who don’t understand how the grant process works or how to write a grant (both of which are unrelated to their ability to do good work.) The ability to move quickly is important because often the money is going towards keeping the lights on or a grad student in the lab, so if an organization can’t get the money quickly they are going to work on a different project and become unavailable even if the money is available later. Fast money allows a PM to quickly act on new information and adjust the trajectory of the program which can make it more likely to succeed. There is also something intangible about the feeling of ‘momentum’ that you can’t get if you have to constantly go over road bumps.

Of course, the ability to deploy money quickly requires high trust in both the PMs integrity and their judgement. Restrictions on spending money happen when you reach trust limits. Overhead exists for a rational reason - money can be embezzled and People always spend money for a purpose so whoever is providing the money wants to know that it is being well-spent. Yet another reason why The dependence of DARPA on high quality program managers mirrors the obsession with “talent” in other disciplines.

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