Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency:

Key Factors Drive Transition of Technologies, but Better Training and Data Dissemination Can Increase Success

GAO-16-5: Published: Nov 18, 2015. Publicly Released: Nov 18, 2015.

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What GAO Found

Since 2010, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has had success in technology transition—the process of migrating new technologies from the research environment to military users, including Department of Defense (DOD) acquisition programs and warfighters. However, inconsistencies in how the agency defines and assesses its transition outcomes preclude GAO from reliably reporting on transition performance across DARPA's portfolio of 150 programs that were successfully completed between fiscal years 2010 and 2014. These inconsistencies are due in part to shortfalls in agency processes for tracking technology transition. Nevertheless, GAO's analysis of 10 selected programs identified four factors that contributed to transition success, the most important being military or commercial demand for the planned technology and linkage to a research area where DARPA has sustained interest. Both of these factors were generally evident at the time a program started, while the other two factors were observed later, once the program was underway. The figure below highlights the four factors.

Factors That Contributed to Successful Technology Transition in Selected DARPA Programs

Factors That Contributed to Successful Technology Transition in Selected DARPA Programs

DARPA's implementation of DOD programs intended to foster technology transition has been limited and neither DOD nor DARPA have defined policies for managing transition activities. DARPA has also largely elected not to participate in DOD technology transition programs, with the exception of federally mandated small business programs, citing challenges in meeting program requirements within DARPA's typical three- to five-year timeframe for executing its research initiatives. Instead, DARPA primarily focuses its time and resources on creating radically innovative technologies that support DOD's warfighting mission and relegates technology transition to a secondary priority. DARPA leadership defers to its program managers to foster technology transition, but provides limited related training. Moreover, while its leadership conducts oversight of program managers' activities through periodic program reviews, these reviews do not regularly assess technology transition strategies. GAO has found that this approach does not consistently position programs for transition success. Further, while DARPA disseminates information on its past programs within DOD, to the public, and among private companies, it does not take full advantage of government-sponsored resources for sharing technical data, which may obscure visibility into its programs and lead to missed transition opportunities.

Why GAO Did This Study

After the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into orbit in 1957, the U.S. government made a commitment to initiate, rather than react to, strategic technological surprises. DOD relies on DARPA's disruptive innovations to maintain this promise, backed by congressional appropriations of over $2.9 billion in fiscal year 2015 alone. In April 2015, DOD reported that U.S. technological superiority is again being challenged by potential adversaries and renewed efforts to improve its products. Meanwhile, GAO found deficiencies in DOD's technology transition processes that may hinder these efforts and DARPA's goals.

Senate Report 113-176 included a provision for GAO to review DOD's technology transition processes, practices, and results. This report focuses on DARPA and assesses its (1) effectiveness at transitioning technologies since fiscal year 2010, including identifying factors that contribute to successful transitions, and (2) implementation of DOD policies and programs intended to facilitate technology transition. GAO reviewed DARPA programs completed since 2010; identified transition factors by analyzing program documentation for a random sample of 10 cases; reviewed DOD policies; and interviewed DOD officials.

What GAO Recommends

DARPA should regularly assess technology transition strategies, refine training requirements, and increase dissemination of technical data for completed programs. DOD did not agree to take GAO's recommended actions, which remain warranted, as discussed in the report.

For more information, contact Michael J. Sullivan at (202) 512-4841 or sullivanm@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: Although DOD partially concurred with this recommendation, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering stated in August 2016 that DOD did not agree with directing the DARPA Director to mandate assessments of technology transition beyond what is currently being conducted throughout the agency. He further stated that the Director of DARPA already participates in technology transition discussions throughout DARPA program's lifecycle to include the initial briefing of a program and milestone reviews. Furthermore, he stated that in 2013, the Director, DARPA directed the Adaptive Execution Office (AEO) to assist DARPA Program Managers with engagement and technology transition strategies for their programs, and AEO tracks and documents the final transition status of DARPA programs. A DARPA representative stated in June 2017 that there has been no change in status and that no additional related actions are planned. We will continue to track any developments that relate to this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve technology transition planning and outcomes at DARPA, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Director, DARPA, to oversee assessments of technology transition strategies for new and existing DARPA programs as part of existing milestone reviews used to assess scientific and technical progress to inform transition planning and program changes, as necessary. Our analysis identified four factors that could underpin these assessments, but the uniqueness of individual DARPA programs suggests that other considerations may also be warranted.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: Although DOD partially concurred with this recommendation, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering stated in August 2016 that DOD disagreed with directing the DARPA Director to increase training requirements. He stated that DOD believes DARPA's current approach of uniquely tailored training focusing on a programs unique transition needs is most appropriate. He further noted that DARPA continues to explore opportunities to draw from existing DOD and other training materials to offer tailored and streamlined training to its program managers that works within the relatively short tenure of a DARPA program manager. A DARPA representative stated in June 2017 that there has been no change in status and that no additional related actions are planned. We will continue to track any developments that relate to this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve technology transition planning and outcomes at DARPA, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Director, DARPA, to increase technology transition training requirements and offerings for DARPA program managers, leveraging existing DOD science and technology training curricula, as appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOD initially non-concurred with this recommendation and further confirmed in August 2016 that this remains their position. The Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering stated that DOD disagreed with directing DARPA to mandate use of the experimental "Open Catalog" and other government sponsored information repositories.

    Recommendation: To improve technology transition planning and outcomes at DARPA, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Director, DARPA, to increase the dissemination of technical data on completed DARPA programs through Open Catalog and other government-sponsored information repositories aimed at facilitating commercialization of technologies.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

 

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