Brookings Blum Roundtable 2013: Building a DARPA for Development
The U.S. government is considered a leader in the application of innovation and technology to address global
development challenges. The Obama administration
has built on that reputation with new resources, policies and
initiatives over the past four years.
In just the latest example, the U.S. Agency of International
Development (USAID) announced in December the launch
of the Higher Education Solutions Network, a five-year,
$130 million partnership with seven American and foreign
universities to establish “development labs” that will apply
science and technology to identify and address key global
challenges in areas such as global health, food security and
persistent conflict. This initiative has been described as the
beginnings of a “DARPA for development,” a reference to the
U.S. Department of Defense’s research and development organization, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
DARPA is one model for the promotion of technology
and innovation by government. Another is the National
Institutes of Health (NIH), which has a very different mandate
and structure. Both agencies were cited at the Brookings
Blum Roundtable as possible archetypes for the design of
a government entity dedicated to furthering an innovation
agenda for global development.
Here we explore these two models, both held up as
exemplars of good practice, to see what lessons and insights
they provide to guide the U.S. government’s evolving global
development agenda. This analysis can help to answer two
questions that were raised at the roundtable that are central
to formulating the U.S. government’s approach to technology
and innovation as it applies to development:
First, what is an appropriate role for government in supporting innovation and technology for development? The
case for government support for innovation and technology
is justified by invoking several market failures that government intervention can help to overcome. However, poorly
designed interventions can introduce distortions rather than
appropriate incentives for researchers, entrepreneurs and
investors, while overreach can crowd out other actors rather
than catalyzing their engagement.
Second, what does a joined-up policy on technology and
innovation for development look like? The U.S. government
is engaged in many activities, from supporting the invention of scientific breakthroughs, to establishing competitive
mechanisms to spur innovation through experimentation, to
taking innovative solutions to scale or removing barriers to
scaling up. These activities involve various parts of government, ranging from USAID and the State Department to the
Energy, Health and Agriculture departments and the U.S.
Patent and Trademark Office. As with other aspects of the
government’s global development policy, understanding and
improving how these various moving parts relate to each other
is a key criterion for effectiveness and coherent policymaking.