A growing number of governments hope to clone America’s DARPA | The Economist

August 10, 2021



Using messenger rna to make vaccines was an unproven idea. But if it worked, the technique would revolutionise medicine, not least by providing protection against infectious diseases and biological weapons. So in 2013 America’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (darpa) gambled. It awarded a small, new firm called Moderna $25m to develop the idea. Eight years, and more than 175m doses later, Moderna’s covid-19 vaccine sits alongside weather satellites, gps, drones, stealth technology, voice interfaces, the personal computer and the internet on the list of innovations for which darpa can claim at least partial credit.
On paper, the approach is straightforward. Take enormous, reckless gambles on things so beneficial that only a handful need work to make the whole venture a success. As Arun Majumdar, founding director of arpa-e, America’s energy agency, puts it: “If every project is succeeding, you’re not trying hard enough.” Current (unclassified) darpa projects include mimicking insects’ nervous systems in order to reduce the computation required for artificial intelligence and working out how to protect soldiers from the enemy’s use of
genome-editing technologies.