President Biden Proposes Creating Two DARPA-Like Agencies
President Biden Proposes Creating Two DARPA-Like Agencies

President Biden Proposes Creating Two DARPA-Like Agencies

These new initiatives would tackle problems relating to health and climate.

Lisa Winter
Apr 12, 2021

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President Joe Biden released his request for discretionary funding for fiscal year 2022 on Friday (April 9), with a number of proposed increases to science organizations. On top of a boost to existing research and development programs, Biden also calls for the creation of high-risk, high-reward agencies that would operate in much the same way as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), but would tackle problems in health and climate.

DARPA is known for developing technologies for defense-related problems through visionary “blue sky” thinking that isn't confined to what is immediately realistic or attainable. It is unburdened by the typical constraints of grant applications and bureaucratic red tape, giving its researchers the liberty to pursue projects that might not have a guaranteed payoff.

As part of a proposed $9 billion increase to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Biden administration has earmarked $6.5 billion to create the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Health (ARPA-H) modeled after DARPA. Initially, the agency would focus on innovative treatments in cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease, according to a White House press release.

See “UK Announces ‘High-Risk, High-Reward’ Research Development Agency

In the same vein, Biden asks that the Department of Energy develop ARPA-C, which would focus on the climate crisis. This agency would share its $1 billion funding with ARPA-E, founded in 2009 to search for cutting-edge energy solutions. President Biden has called for net-zero carbon emissions in the US by the year 2050.

“We are tapping into the imagination, talent, and grit of America’s innovators, scientists, and workers to spearhead a national effort that empowers the United States to lead the world in tackling the climate crisis,” National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy said in a February press release when the concept of ARPA-C was introduced.

While there is praise for the President’s support of scientific organizations, some critics worry that the funding is too much, too soon. Science reported last week, before the budget request was released, that in February, an open letter from seven scientists—including David Baltimore, who received the 1975 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his work with reverse transcriptase—expressed concern that ballooning budgets for existing organizations such as the NIH and the National Science Foundation would be harmful to their present functions.

“Such ambitious plans . . . will encounter justifiable resistance if they do not also include commitments to protect the basic science that the NSF and other federal funding agencies already perform so well,” the letter reads.

Even without the normal tethers of funding, healthcare-related research would have to abide by the same time-consuming, rigorous clinical testing currently in place. “It’s not like at [the Department of Defense],” David Walt, a chemical biologist at Harvard University, tells Science, “where you can invent a land mine detector and use it in the field 2 weeks later.”

Biden’s spending request would also increase awards for the Pell grant, invest more heavily in K-12 schools, and expand efforts to combat ongoing public health crises such as the opioid epidemic, gun violence, and HIV/AIDS.