Risky Business:Why DARPA Does What Medical Industry Won’t


I previously wrote about the government cutting the soldier of the future LandWarrior program.  The point of my post was the myriad next-generation medical developments destined to come from the program that would be lost in the military cutbacks.  The post was picked up widely including slashdot and grandrounds.  Many commenters were angry at the concept of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on military development to get medical byproducts rather than spending less money more efficiently directly on medical development.  The point of that post and this one is not to say war is great because it leads to medical advances.  Here I will review why and how breakthroughts come from the military and not from other avenues which is suprising (and upsetting) to many.

This military effect applies to all science and not just medicine.  A summary of this concept is here. As they write:

The sheer scale of military funding for science since World War II has instigated a large body of historical literature analyzing the effects of that funding, especially for American science. Since Paul Forman’s 1987 article “Behind quantum electronics: National security as a basis for physical research in the United State, 1940-1960,” there has been an ongoing historical debate over precisely how and to what extent military funding affected the course of scientific research and discovery. Forman and others have argued that military funding fundamentally redirected science—particularly physics—toward applied research, and that military technologies predominantly formed the basis for subsequent research even in areas of basic science; ultimately the very culture and ideals of science were colored by extensive collaboration between scientists and military planners. A more traditional view (consistent with that of many of the involved scientists themselves) has been defended by Daniel Kevles, that while military funding provided many new opportunities for scientists and dramatically expanded the scope of physical research, scientists by-and-large retained their intellectual autonomy.

What are some examples of military medical offshoots?:  microwave therapies for tumors, ultrasound diagnostics, active prostetics, head mounted endoscopic displays, surgical robots.

Why does military research lead to these bold new medical developments rather than medical research directly?  To put it simply, because they can and have to.  I have spoken to quite a few venture capitalists while reviewing devices for development and commercialization.  Universally they tell me of the enormous costs of development and the fixed time frame to commercialize.  Products looking too far in the future or with too high development costs are often simply too much risky business to bet on. 

The military is different for better or for worse.  First a budget overrun of 500% can be absorbed by the military while it can spell death for a medical start-up.  In times of war, there is often no limit to the resources that can be expended to achieve an important goal.  A review of the history of medical breakthroughts resulting from wars can be found here.  Medicaladvances achieved during the civil war are reviewed here WWI here In addition, the military has a R&D arm that focuses on very long term high risk huge payoff projects– DARPA.

Defense Technology International has a lead article about DARPA and Risky Business Research that no one else will do.  As they write about DARPA:

The mission of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) is “to maintain the technological superiority of the U.S. military and prevent technological surprise by sponsoring revolutionary, high-payoff research that bridges the gap between fundamental discoveries and their military use.” Its traditional strength has been its ability as a small, technology seed money agency with an expert technical staff and minimum bureaucratic red tape to respond to emerging military needs and technological opportunities and to independently pursue revolutionary solutions. In fact, to maintain its entrepreneurial atmosphere and flow of high-risk technical ideas, Darpa rotates program managers in and out of the agency, with most of them serving only 4-6 years.

Dr. Anthony J. (“Tony”) Tether, Darpa’s director since 2001 says of the agency:

Darpa’s job is to show that something is technically feasible. It doesn’t mean that people are automatically going to use it, because there are funding and other issues involved. But they can’t say that it can’t be done.

While we’re on the subect- here are some more things coming down the pike from the military courtesy of defensetech.org

Remore control neural activation covered here

Details of this emerged in a heavily-censored document released to Ed Hammond of the Sunshine Project under the Freedom if Information Act. Called “Sensory consequence of electromagnetic pulsed emitted by laser induced plasmas,” it described research on activating the nerve cells responsible for sensing unpleasant stimuli: heat, damage, pressure, cold. By selectively stimulating a particular nociceptor, a finely tuned PEP might sensations of say, being burned, frozen or dipped in acid — all without doing the slightest actual harm

While using this to remotely trigger pain or disable an attacker sounds ominous, the same technology could lead to revolutionary pain blocking or anesthetic techniques. 

New trauma surgery development is here and remote vehicles as prototypes of implantable rovers here.

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