Designing a civilian DARPA

The Defense Research Projects Agency (DARPA) enjoys an enviable reputation as an elite band of non-bureaucrats, able to pick technological winners for the Defense Department and drive them forward by selectively targeted R&D funding. Why not, it has been asked, do the same on the civilian side of the economy? Over the years, more than a few bills have been introduced in Congress that would set up a civilian parallel to DARPA. Most have disappeared without much consideration, although in 1987 the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee reported draft legislation that would have created an Advanced Civilian Technology Agency explicitly modeled on DARPA. This bill—Congress's most serious flirtation with the idea of a civilian DARPA—was incorporated in the Senate's version of the 1988 omnibus trade act, to be later dropped in favor of a less ambitious alternative reported by the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. This second bill contributed the sections of the trade act that renamed the National Bureau of Standards and created a small Advanced Technology Program (ATP) within what is now the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

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