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Spy chief to Obama: Let DARPA fix economy

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Newly-inaugurated President Barack Obama has been urged by a top US spysat chief to revitalise America's economy through the use of DARPA*, the legendary Pentagon barmy-boffinry bureau which has given the world the internet and the stealth bomber. More recently the agency has also sponsored initiatives such as mindreading peril-sensitive brainhat binoculars and brainchipped cyborg zombie insecto-bugs.

The recommendations come from Pedro L Rustan, a senior figure in the US National Reconnaissance Office, the secretive agency which handles American spy satellites. Rustan delivered his exhortations to Mr Obama in the form of an open letter to the aerospace mag Aviation Week, titled Refocus DARPA Beyond Defense.

According to Mr Rustan:

By avoiding bureaucratic infrastructure and nurturing program managers with fresh ideas, Darpa is one of the few agencies in the US government that continues to be as relevant today as it was at its inception. Expanding this entrepreneurial and innovative agency's role beyond traditional defense-related industries will help you rebuild the US economy ...

Rustan considers that DARPA, if given a wider brief than military superiority, would revitalise important US industries such as nanotech, biotech and - of course - IT. He also argues that it is critical for America to encourage advanced graduates in science and engineering to stay in the country after completing their studies, rather than compelling many of them to return overseas.

"Traditionally, 60 per cent of US PhD students in science and engineering have been from other countries," he writes, saying that the new tech doctors should mainly stay "and become a part of this great nation", perhaps as part of DARPA programmes, rather than returning to their home countries.

Rustan doesn't say so, but it might be possible to arrange a further scheme where the home nations were repaid for the loss of all their bright, hardworking mathematically educated people by forced shipments of lazy American soft-studies postgraduates, thus further enhancing US world dominance.

Some might argue, meanwhile, that DARPA is already working on a number of things which might not be seen as very strictly military - for instance airships, heliplanes, flying cars and so on. Not to mention the arpanet/internet itself. While many military technologies go on to find civilian applications, one might say that this is especially true of DARPA's successes - the agency is perhaps already quite interested in new technologies as much for their general coolness and applicability as for their military potential.

Then, too, it might be argued that the natural tendency of the US federal government is not to widen the remit of existing agencies over other departments' areas, but rather to simply create more agencies. The new IARPA, for example.

Then, of course, there's suggestion that pinning one's hope of economic recovery on DARPA - occasionally seen as an organisation which might not have a good fix on its entire glass-spheroid plaything portfolio - might be an overly gutsy move. The organisation is renowned for its "high-risk" approach, after all.

We'll just have to see how things turn out. ®

*The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

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