The ARPA model can lead to inbreeding

The path of least resistance when you’re hiring is to hire people you know, and people tend to know people like themselves. This human tendency, combined with hiring flexibility (DARPA is incredibly flexible with who it hires to be program managers) means that DARPA tends to bring people on as program managers who are already in the DAPRA sphere - researchers who work on government projects, military personnel, and generally “Washington DC people.”

One consequence of the insularity is that from personal experience* there is a significant cultural gap between DARPA and Silicon Valley. (Commercializing DARPA COVID research case study) Since venture capital and startups are an increasingly important technology dispersion mechanism (Dispersion is a more appropriate word than dissemination or diffusion for heuretics) the gap impairs their ability to effectively transfer technology. DARPA has a mixed record on transitioning. To be explicit: my point isn’t to criticize DARPA for not having more of a ‘startup culture’, but to illustrate that cultural insularity can impede technology dispersion.

Intellectual inbreeding can also impede DARPA’s ability to work with the best possible performers. While ideally program managers can cast a dragnet that puts their program on the radar of everybody who might be able to contribute, ( A large part of a DARPA program manager’s job is focused network building) in reality many people who might be able to contribute are totally unaware. The announcements are still mostly picked up by people in the DARPA “sphere.” This gap is true from personal experience - I was working on technology for manipulating an uncooperative satellite at literally the same time that DARPA was running a program to capture and repurpose satellites and didn’t hear about it until after the grant calls had closed.

There is also a fine line between ‘working with people you trust for the sake of expediency’ and ‘giving money to your buddies even if they aren’t the best ones for the job.’ Although PM’s have definitely gone over this line - the Total Information Awareness program poured money into a consulting firm run by the PM’s former colleagues - DARPA has managed to remain shockingly scandal free.

A riff on the ARPA model could possibly address the potential inbreeding problem explicitly putting in effort to seek out weirdos and people from ‘different worlds.’

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