Abstract

A recent article in Popular Science magazine really resonated with me, in light of other recent experiences with “research and development programs.” “DARPA's Debacle in the Desert” (Hooper, 2004) concerned the much-hyped 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge, which offered a US$1 million prize to the individual or team that developed an unmanned, completely autonomous vehicle that could navigate itself over a 150-mile course in the shortest time (under 10 hours). DARPA, the U.S. Department of Defense's premier basic research and out-of-the-box funding agency, gambled on technology development/advancement via a structured contest. The price tag to plan, advertise, provide support and logistics, monitoring and scoring, etc., was likely several times the potential prize. The best performer in the contest dropped out approximately 7.5 miles from the starting line. The contest certainly generated excitement, and it pulled together some interesting and talented teams. Did the contest spur technological advancement? Likely, although much will be quickly lost or diluted as most of the transient teams that came together dissolve. But the whole affair was so much fun that DARPA conducted DARPA Grand Challenge 2005 with a prize of $2 million! Following historical precedent for such contests, the criteria for “winning” would predictably be simplified. The DARPA contests are actually examples of a much broader trend in research and development that may be the embodiment of a new paradigm.

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